Trish Malarkey is the Head of Research and Development at Syngenta, a company that has become a global leader in agribusiness by bringing farmers improved crop solutions. Trish has extensive technical knowledge in biology, chemistry, and biotechnology. Combining her expertise with her leadership position at Syngenta, Trish offers highly valuable insights that are both unique and eye-opening. Discover how to manage and create an innovative environment for a talented team of scientists on this week’s episode.
Building An Industry-Leading Innovation Engine
Trish, thank you very much for your time. I’m sure our audience have enjoyed it as much as I did, and thank you very mOkay. Hello, this is Mark Bidwell. Welcome to the Innovation Ecosystem Podcast. With me today is Trish Malarkey, who is Head of Research and Development for Syngenta. So, Trish, thank you for having me on the show. How do you answer the dinner party question, “What do you do?”?
Thanks, Mark. Thanks for having me as well. So, when people ask me what I do, I talk about the fact that I’m a scientist by training and I tell them that I work for a company that is involved in agriculture and I head up the Research and Development organization of that company. What we actually do is produce food for an ever-increasing population and we use technology to do that in the most sustainable way we can.
And the company is Syngenta, which I know well, having worked there for a number of years. But, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with the company, can you just explain a little bit about the company – its history, its scope, and what it produces in service of those names you mentioned.
Syngenta, as Syngenta, is a fairly young company but it’s grown from legacy companies, well-known companies of Zeneca and Novartis. Syngenta is involved in crop protection and seed production. We are an agri-business and we produce seeds in a wide ranging number of crops, and we also protect those crops through our pipeline and products in crop protection: fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides. And we also have the opportunity — because we have a seeds business and a chemical business, we’re able to involve ourselves in technology that protects the seed directly through seed care.
And the scope of it, something like 30 thousand employees around the world?
We have just about 27 thousand employees worldwide in over 90 countries, I believe, we are in at the moment.
Excellent. Now, you are Head of Research and Development and you touched on technology. How would you characterize the role of research and development in Syngenta?
Syngenta sees itself as an innovation company. It’s right at the heart of Syngenta’s business model and operating model where we have technology is our product. Technology and knowledge about our products is really an R&D endeavor.
Okay, and the scope of your activities, is it fair to say it starts from very basic research all the way up to preparing the launch of a product? Is that the main sort of how you bracket the work you do?
In crop protection, we are a chemistry, biology, and mathematics company, if you like. They are the tools of our scientific trade, and we therefore look at using those sciences and skills to discover new products, to discover active ingredients, or to discover new traits in germplasm.
Okay. And we’re sitting here in Basel, and within probably two miles, there are three companies, including Syngenta, with a market cap of close on half a trillion dollars, and here we are in a town of less than 170 thousand people. So, you’ve got a lot of research and development people in Switzerland. Why is it that Switzerland has such a — why are so many people working here in Switzerland on this kind of basic science that you outlined? Any views on that?
I think if you think about the history of Switzerland, the history of Basel, in particular, the chemical industry was really born here, and I think, for that, as a simple reason alone, this is the home and the birthplace of chemistry, to some extent.
My history is a bit shaky, but that was well over 150 years ago. I read today that there are more patents filed per capita in Switzerland than in any other countries. So, that history of innovation remains.
Coming back to you, you took over this role of Head of R&D two and a half years ago, I think. Maybe a little bit longer.
Now, what led up to your accepting this role? Was it something you’ve always dreamed of doing all your life or was it a little bit more of a difficult decision to say yay or nay to?
I think every career journey has great stories. I don’t know that when people look at how their careers play out, it’s not always to the exact plan. So, if I was honest and you asked the question, did I dream of becoming the Head of R&D overnight for chemical company or an agri-business, it was never the ambition. But, the ambition firmly was to work in food production, to work for a company that was responsible with respect to food safety. I started out as a toxicologist. There was always the option of do I go work for a pharmaceutical company and work on the safety of medicines and curing diseases with humans, or do I work for a company that is looking at producing more food. I saw an opportunity for me to link well-being and health in a career that encompassed the agri-business I’m in today.
And the move to take over a group and be responsible for five thousand people, a budget of one and a half billion dollars —
Just over 1.3 billion.
1.3 billion dollars. I mean, that’s a significant undertaking. So, maybe we can talk a little bit about how you see yourself in that role? One other thing that strikes me, just for the benefit of the audience, is – I’m not sure of the exact numbers – but, the time to get a new product — well, we were at a launch yesterday together, an internal launch. I was very honored to be able to participate in that, or at least observe it. But, the time from which the product was conceived in a scientist’s mind in a research to the first launch, which was later this year, how many? Was that 10, 12 years?
For that particular molecule which you’re talking about, ADEPIDYN™, it was eight years.
Eight years, which is pretty quick, actually.
Very quick. We’re really proud of the speed with which we were able to develop that one. But, it didn’t come without its challenges and it was probably faster because it was actually being developed as a backup as well.
Yes, and it was one of a number of previous forerunners in that class chemistry. So, very long product cycles. My first question is how do you create an environment in which people who are working in the basic research side of things, and you’ve got many of those scattered around the world. A lot of them, I guess, are here in Switzerland, where they can be working on things that never actually find their place in the market, find their way in the market because of the enormous financial or regulatory hurdles that these products have to go through.
I think it’s a really good question. To answer the question, you have to go back to what motivates people. And I think, the first thing, how to create an environment where people have that passion to produce a product, I think that’s one of them, and that those products are connected to a big purpose. So, like we were saying before, it could be curing a disease or it could be feeding the world. So, I think, there has to be something about purpose. There has to be something about the ability to see your work go into the fruition of a product. But, of course, you’re absolutely right. In the endeavor of doing that, there’s a huge attrition rate. And that’s why when you think about once you’ve got the purpose there and once you’ve got the ability to see products, there’s the fact that people, and especially scientists, in my view, they’re motivated by mastery. You know, the ability to master their trait. Most of us are. I don’t think it’s just scientists. If you play the guitar, you want to get better at it. If you spend four years doing a science degree and then three years doing a PhD, you really want to work somewhere where you get better at it. So, the environment you speak about is a place where people are able to put their chemistry, their biology, or their mathematics skills and get better at them and apply them into solving big problems.
Let’s come back to purpose. Syngenta has a great story around purpose. The purpose being, bringing plant potential to life. But, my reflection of the purpose was it took a lot of people, a lot of the top organization quite a lot of time to give birth to that purpose, and then there’s a hugely interactive process where every employee was invited to interact with that purpose and really look themselves in the mirror and see, “Does this fit with who I am, what I want to do, the kind of work I’m interested in?” How do you see purpose and is that an accurate view of the role that purpose plays in Syngenta?
I think it is an accurate view, the bringing plant potential to life is the outcome of actually being able to feed the population and feed a growing population in a sustainable way. As a result of really having that at the heart of our ambition, feeding people, the outcome is that we’re able to bring plant potential to life but it does require a connection to the purpose. The purpose in itself can be very lofty, but there has to be a very carefully thought out way of connecting people to it, and I think back to your previous question is another really important point about ensuring that there is an environment of creativity and an environment of innovation.
Okay, we might come back to a couple questions around the R&D piece, but you touched on creating the environment for innovation. So, if I was a fly on the wall at one of your leadership team meetings, and you have, around the table, people representing a whole range of scientific disciplines and functions like regulatory biology. I don’t know, exactly, your organization chart, but what would I see you doing and what would I hear you saying in your role as a leader in order to create those conditions for innovation?
So, I think one of the things, just to be absolutely clear and honest to the question, the way we have our R&D leadership team meetings, we hold ourselves responsible broadly for three things, and therefore, we have our agenda, if you like, in three things. The first is people, the other is operations, and the third is strategy. So, you really have to organize yourself. I think that’s just a good management and leadership discipline is to be clear about what you’re working on.
Now, I didn’t use the word “innovation”, but innovation, people are there in service of innovation. The strategy is in service of innovation, and the operation piece is about how do we make the innovation engine as efficient as possible. So, we talk about strategy from the point of view of the pipeline and delivering the pipeline that we have, and it’s a really healthy pipeline that we have right now. And with the challenges in our industry and in the market at the moment, it’s never going to be more important to outperform our competitors than through the delivery of the rich and vibrant pipeline.
The other piece is around the new product design. We have to innovate by design and that’s one of the themes that we talk about. How do we leverage and capitalize on this new convergence of the sciences? What you’re seeing is that chemistry, biology, and mathematics are all converging in a way that allows us to go from a very trial and error type science to a highly predictive type of science.
We’re able to think about what a molecule needs to look like and how to design it to make the blockbuster that we talked about yesterday, which is ADEPIDYN™, and it’s the same in breeding when you look at breeding. We’re able to predict because we understand genotype, because we understand the biology, because we understand the environment and the characteristics of the environment, and because we’re able to use molecular markers, we’re able to design products and seek products by computer, if you’d like.
So, one of the things that strikes me as you talk about that. I mean, you talk about three sciences: chemistry, biology, and mathematics. I’m not sure whether these are functional silos, but certainly, one would imagine that you have individuals representing those different areas. What is it that you do to encourage them to maybe break down the barriers and start co-creating together?
The point is they’re not functional silos; they’re skills. You don’t set up, necessarily, a chemistry function, and a biology function, and a mathematics function. We have chemistry which is tested through biology and we have skill sets that are biological skill sets and we have mathematical skill sets. Actually the challenge is really looking at how do you find this new breed of person that has the mathematical skills, for example, to help breed or be a breeder. Because, breeders don’t tend to be mathematicians. The challenge is more how do we make sure that we have the right connections between people and the right skill sets to ensure that you bring the technologies together, the sciences together.
Because it strikes me, there are these sorts of stories of how Steve Jobs designed Pixar where he would mix all the different functions up and the space that he created was designed to create interaction. More recently, you have Elon Musk who puts metal bashers next to software engineers next to hardcore rocket scientists, all of whom have very different conversations because they’re forced to have different conversations, which gives birth to — you know, they’re looking at the world very differently and they’re converging across different disciplines. It sounds that those are the kind of approaches that are actually yielding some quite interesting results in those industries.
Now, you come back to the strength of the pipeline. How do you characterize the fact that the pipeline is so strong against the competition? What is it that you feel that Syngenta is doing better than anyone else? Is it that case of looking at the world in a cross-disciplined convergent way? Is that the answer or is there anything else that’s happening here?
There was a lot in your last question. I think if I’ve distilled what you’ve said there down to why is our pipeline so good, I think one of the things that we really focus on, and we really think about being the most productive innovation engine in the industry. Now, that’s what we talk about now, but the pipeline today is really of the work from people many years before I sat in this chair. I think one of the things that really makes a difference is this ability to use technology to predict.
One of the big challenges that we have in our industry is the whole registration and the public opinion about pesticides, crop protection chemicals. We have always got to think one step ahead. We have to be designing molecules today for an environment that could look different than it is today. And that’s why, just connecting with what I said previously, one of the big differentiators for us, I think, from an innovation point of view, is our innovation strategy in crop protection, which is about, really designing molecules that are not just looking for efficacy and potency. It’s looking for the ability to mix in partners, it’s looking for the ability, through the understanding of biology, to really ensure that you design the best molecule from an environmental and a human safety profile, and it’s also using our understanding of chemistry to design a molecule that will have the best cost of goods. So, I think, in short, we are able to use our chemistry, our biology to design a molecule that has the best chance of success.
Yeah, and so that gets to my question around there are a number of changes going on in the industry. You touched on some of them. The regulatory environment is changing: consumer demands and requirements, expectations are changing, diseases are changing, resistance, that’s driving a change, and obviously, the competitive environment is changing as well. How confident are you, sitting here, that the basic work being done in the research labs, not a million miles from here, is going to deliver what’s needed in 2025 or 2030? How do you reconcile that?
I told you a minute ago, we talk about in our meetings, people, strategy, and operations. So, let me talk a little bit about strategy, because what you asked there is a really strategic question. We look at who we are today. We are proud of the fact that we think we are the most productive innovation engine in the industry. But, what you just listed there were the key things that will really put a threat to that position. The first one I would say is the market volatility. You know the industry well, Mark. It’s cycles of boom and not so booming, and for an R&D Head, that means I’ve got to think, when the market’s doing well, I get more money to spend on R&D. When the market’s not going so well, I get less of a percent in sales.
So, that’s one of the challenges. The other is our industry is consolidating, so our competitors are looking to come from six companies down to, potentially, three. Now, that means there could be bigger R&D engines for us to compete against. The other one you mentioned, LTO, which is the license to operate, and the governments, and the public pressure that go to bear on that. Then, the other one, which is the really important one for us, the fourth one, is about technology itself. Where is the technology going? I don’t mean to give a long answer to this, but these are the four things that put pressure on where we are today.
But, with those four things, they’re not all challenges. There’s opportunity that comes with that, and that’s what we address in our strategy, and the first thing we look at is, first of all, we need to make sure that we deliver the pipeline, we need to make sure we exploit the convergence of technology to design better products for the future. But, the other piece that I haven’t mentioned yet is this potential to be aware of and participate in disruptive technologies. So, we look at that as well.
Then, the fourth thing is really your physical assets: where you are, what you do, the properties you own, the collocation of people. I think you touched a little bit on that with your examples making sure people are in the right places so that their skill sets gel.
Okay. So, let’s go to technology a little bit, because I think a lot of our listeners, innovation often, when it’s written about in the context of agriculture, it’s talking about a lot of these startups in the West Coast, which have been very heavily funded in the last couple of years. It’s coming off a little bit, but we talk about drones, we talk about data you’ve touched on, precision agriculture, synthetic protein. The thing for me is that a lot of this is becoming democratized because it’s much easier for people to participate in agriculture today than it used to be, because you don’t necessarily need 200 million dollars to bring a new molecule to market, whatever that number is. What are you seeing in the ecosystem of agricultural innovation that makes you think, “Well, we’ve really got to participate in this.” This could be disruptive to us or we could actually use this to disrupt some of our competition. What are the areas that get you particularly excited?
Well, I think, actually, the ones that are clear right now are the whole digital agronomy space, the ability to either position products, sell products, or the Hotels.com of our products, or TripAdvisor where you’re going for grower recommendations.
Like the company in the U.S. that got funded by Google. National Farmers Network, I think it is?
Farmers Business Network.
Farmers Business Network.
Yeah, exactly. Or the Amazon of products, and things like biologicals, but both of those things are part of what I mentioned as the fore drivers and the strategy. So, first of all, the whole digital space is a technology that is potentially enabling the industry to go to market in a different way. Then, the other pieces around something like biologicals, there’s pressure there not because there’s great technology breakthrough in that space, because as you know, biologicals have been around forever. But, the LTO piece is making this back to your point about the ecosystem. There’s more interesting investing there because there’s the demand or the need or the perception that we need biological products.
I think the digital space, the way we look at it, and certainly, the way I look at it from and R&D perspective, the digital agronomy is here. It started in R&D organizations all around. We are really starting to see ourselves using digital agronomy, using our understanding of weather, soil, temperature, genetics to think about how we can really design our breeding programs, helping our colleagues in production and supply to look at the best and more optimal ways of planting or seed production. Really, the aim there is to make our better processes.
Then, the next phases that you will go into is better products as a result of that. We will design better products as a result of the digital agronomy in R&D. Then, after better products, it’s a way to actually more knowledge about your products that you can actually use with the sales and marketing staff to position our products better in the grower’s hands.
For people who are listening who are, maybe, either starting out in their careers or thinking about, “I’m sitting in a large, regulated, slow-moving organization and I want to go where there’s a bit more action where there’s an opportunity to contribute to society.” What would you say to people who, maybe, have got some of these skills that you listed around data? What would you say to them about agriculture? What would your pitch be for agriculture as a career, and how has that changed from the pitch that you heard when you started out?
So, the pitch is really clear to me because of the convergence of sciences, the chemistry, and the biology. There is a huge opportunity for us to apply advanced mathematics in agriculture. This is a whole area that’s been around since before the war, operational science. Now, what’s different now is the volume of data in agriculture, the genetic information, the trailing information, the weather data.
There’s a huge opportunity, as an applied mathematician, to really participate in agriculture. And the why would you want to participate in agriculture? Well, again, you get to master your skill, but also you get to participate in one of the biggest purposes that there are, which is feeding the world’s growing population.
Okay, and that’s different from, perhaps, what attracted you to the — I mean, obviously, the purposes you got to is the same, but the tools that are needed are evolving over time, I guess.
Yeah, I mean, taking me right back, I was a toxicologist. I came into this industry because I knew I had a skill that would help me participate in providing crop protection products that were safe. I’m proud of the fact that companies, not just Syngenta, but companies like Syngenta have been regulated companies where they’ve ensured, through toxicology, ecotoxicology, and all of the biological sciences that their products meet the highest safety standards.
And those safety standards, for the benefit of the audience, are higher than they are in pharmaceuticals?
I would phrase it a different way. Often, the amount of work we have to go through as an agrichemical company to demonstrate safety is larger volumes of work than some clinical indications.
Yeah, okay. Good, good. Beginning to wrap this up now, Trish, but you’ve mentioned this word a couple of times, so I’m very keen to get into it: “mastery”. What does mastery mean for you, as a professional and as Head of Research and Development for one of the largest players in an extremely relevant organization in an extremely relevant industry?
It’s good. So, for me, mastery can mean technical skills, it can mean expertise, and it can actually mean judgment as well. So, what it all means is that you are in command of a set of technical capabilities, whether it’s chemistry or biochemistry, whether it’s knowledge, and because of your command of that technical skill or that knowledge, you’re able to provide judgment to others. You’re able to make high quality decisions, and therefore, as a result of that, this comes right back almost to your personal brand that you’re trusted for the advice, or the products, or the science that you’re delivering.
So, you talked about mastery from a technical perspective, but maybe you can just say a little bit about what does mastery mean as a leader of a group of five thousand experts in their specific areas in the research and development function?
I think the challenge and the opportunity of leading scientists is actually a great one. It means that you have to be able to provide an environment where they’re able to practice their own specific disciplines. It means that you have to think about ways in which you can actually develop their own talents. But, I think, as the leader of an organization like R&D, it’s a little bit of providing the framework, providing and connecting people with an overall strategy, and to a certain extent, to get out of their way and allow them to create the products or the technologies that you’ve hired them for.
Yeah, excellent. So, Trish, I sent three questions through to you a couple of days ago, and hopefully you had the time to reflect on them. First question: what have you changed your mind about recently?
You know, I changed my mind about, I really found that a hard question and I even thought about my initial answer that came to my mind and I thought, “Well, I will give that.” The importance of diversity is what I changed my mind about. I never realized how important it was. I got the concept that diversity is important, but I think one of the things that I realized is that I’ve seen it as I’ve participated in many different countries and many different teams, I’ve really seen the practice of diversity make a big difference.
Interesting. The last guest of the previous season is a guy called Robert Swan, who’s the first man to go unassisted to walk to the North Pole and the South Pole. He talks about diversity as if you’re in a tent in very, very dangerous conditions, you don’t want everyone thinking the same way otherwise you will die. So, diversity, for him, it’s about making sure you got the right resources around the table to keep alive. It’s very profound, actually. You bring that down to the more practical level, and you can argue that’s the case from an organization, as well.
Absolutely, and you realize when everybody’s thinking the same or feeling very comfortable with the same, it’s a very dangerous place to be.
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Second question: what do you do to remain creative and innovative?
I think, actually, one of the things that I do is challenge myself with problems and be attracted to problems. I think that’s really important. Because, people might say, “Oh, I love solving problems,” but I think the truth is, sometimes, when we see problems, it’s easier, especially — and I’m using creativity here not just to mean R&D and innovation, I mean creativity and relationships with colleagues, or creativity and a business problem. So, I think I try really hard to be attracted to problems and not shy away with them because I think that’s when you find you really bring things out of yourself that you didn’t have.
Okay, very good. Third question: to what do you attribute your success in life? So, are there any specific skills, or habits, or mindsets that you’ve mastered that have had a significant impact?
I think the first thing is be surrounded by great people. In every single job I’ve had, I’ve been very fortunate to lead really very talented people, and I think the truth is, mostly, there’s lead through others rather than by themselves. I think the other thing, in terms of mindset, is ensure that the balance between — it’s got to be fun. It’s got to be an adventure. If it’s not an adventure, it’s not worth doing.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, it’s been a great pleasure having you on the show on the Innovation Ecosystem. uch.
What Was Covered
- 02:15 – What does Trish do?
- 05:55 – Why are so many people working in Switzerland in the science field?
- 06:55 – Why did Trish accept the position, Head of Research and Development, at Syngenta?
- 08:30 – How does Trish create an innovative environment with her employees?
- 11:40 – Trish discusses how to create a company culture filled with purpose.
- 13:30 – From a leadership perspective, what does Trish do to inspire innovation?
- 18:30 – What is Syngenta doing that makes them better than their competitors?
- 21:00 – How does Trish know the research she is doing today will be beneficial in 2025?
- 24:30 – What does Trish see right now in terms of innovation in the agricultural industry?
- 27:50 – Why should people join the agricultural industry as a career?
- 30:00 – What does the word ‘mastery’ mean to Trish as a professional?
- 31:45 – What does mastery mean to a leader, especially in the science field?
- 32:50 – What has Trish changed her mind about recently?
- 34:15 – What does Trish do to remain creative?
- 35:10 – What does Trish attribute her success to?
[Tweet “Syngenta sees itself as an innovation company, it’s right at the heart of our business model and our operating model”]
[Tweet “There is a huge opportunity for us to apply advanced mathematics in agriculture.”]
[Tweet “Chemistry, biology & mathematics are converging in a way that allows us to go to highly predictive type of science”]
[Tweet “We have to design molecules for an environment that could look different than today.”]
[Tweet “We’re exploiting the convergence of technology to design better products for the future”]
[Tweet “We get to participate in one of the biggest purposes that there is, which is feeding the world’s growing population.”]
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