Edelman Award: Syngenta earns 2015 INFORMS Edelman Award

Agribusiness sows the seeds of success with operations research and analytics.

By Peter Horner

Edelman Winning Team

Left: Committee Chair Michael Trick (far left) and coach Arnold Greenland (far right) flank members of the Edelman-winning team including Jack Kloeber of Kromite and Bruce Luzzi, Dan Dyer and Joe Byrum of Syngenta.

At first blush, the problem seems relatively simple and inconsequential: How do you breed a better soybean seed?

It turns out that the soybean, like many of Mother Nature’s living organisms, is incredibly complex; a soybean is comprised of 950 × 106 genome base pairs [1], which makes traditional cross-breeding a costly, time-consuming, trial-and-error process based on a trillion possible design options and iterations while cross-breeding selected plants with other plants with promising traits  – with no apparent near-optimal solution in sight.

The problem quickly becomes even more complicated when environmental constraints are taken into account. Simply cultivating more land and using more water and fertilizer are no longer viable options in order to boost production. And so the problem becomes: How do you optimally produce a better soybean seed and therefore a more productive soybean crop on the same amount of acreage without additional irrigation and fertilization?

And then you have to take into consideration the big picture: In a world where providing food for an ever-growing population is perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge, a world where soybeans are a vital source of protein for humans as well as livestock, how do you provide an environmentally sustainable solution to improve soybean crop output through more efficient plant breeding?

How to produce a better soybean crop on the same amount of acreage without additional irrigation and fertilization

How to produce a better soybean crop on the same amount of acreage without additional irrigation and fertilization. Photo Courtesy of Syngenta

That was the problem facing Syngenta, a global Swiss-based agribusiness that makes and markets crop seeds and agrochemicals. The company’s innovative and cost-saving (to the tune of $287 million) answer – utilizing high-end analytics to improve food supplies for an increasingly crowded planet – resulted in it winning the prestigious 2015 Franz Edelman Award for distinction in applications of analytics, operations research and management science.

Presented by INFORMS and considered the “Super Bowl of O.R.,” this year’s Edelman Award was announced at an Oscar-like Edelman Gala held in conjunction with the 2015 INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics & Operations Research in Huntington Beach, Calif., in April.

“Winning the Franz Edelman Award demonstrates the scientific excellence and leadership science is bringing to the farmer in the field,” says Joe Byrum, Syngenta’s global head of soybean R&D. “It’s a level of leadership that has hasn’t been demonstrated in agriculture until now. We’re honored to win the Franz Edelman Award. It further demonstrates the impact our ‘Good Growth Plan’ is having on the world, and we’re proud to share that message with the masses.”

The Project

With current breeding methodologies, the rate of increase in crop production is not sufficient to meet today’s food needs. Syngenta changed that by applying O.R. methods to make better breeding decisions, reducing the time and cost required to develop crops with high productivity.  The data-based transformation helps Syngenta achieve its commitment to meeting the world’s growing food needs in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

Five other Edelman finalists

Along with Syngenta, this year’s Franz Edelman Award competition finalists included:

  • IBM for “Predictive Cloud Computing with Big Data: Professional Golf and Tennis Forecasting”
  • Ingram Micro for “End-to-End Business Analytics and Optimization in Ingram Micro’s Two-Tier Distribution Business”
  • LMI/Defense Logistics Agency for “Peak and Next Gen: Effective Inventory Control for Items with Infrequent or Frequent, Highly Variable Demand”
  • Saudi Arabia Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs for “A Decision Support System for Hajj Crowd Management”
  • U.S. Army and Sandia National Laboratories for “Maximizing the Army’s Future Contribution to Global Security Using the Capability Portfolio Analysis Tool (CPAT)”

Each of four O.R. tools used by the prize-winning work supports one or more key “pipeline” phases: variety design, variety development and variety evaluation.

Syngenta’s trait introgression (TI) tool and the breeding project lead (BPL) tool make processes within the pipeline more efficient. Syngenta is using the TI tool to transfer favorable traits from one soybean variety to another. It uses the BPL tool to develop varieties with higher productivity. With each tool, the project lead compares alternative TI and breeding strategies until a strategy is identified with a high probability of success, as well as minimal cost and time.

Yield trial design (YTD) optimizer and data quality cart (DQC) tools support decisions that impact the quality of variety selection and advancement toward commercialization.

The optimization tools analyze a trillion design options to produce the greatest genetic gain for soybeans while comparing TI and breeding strategies.

The new analytical tools dramatically improve project lead training, decision-making and planning, resulting in cost avoidance for soybean R&D of more than $287 million from 2012-2016 and substantially improving the probability of successfully delivering a portfolio value exceeding $1.5 billion. Syngenta recognizes the positive impact these tools have on soybean R&D and is initiating a multi-year effort to customize and launch similar tools across all major crops.

The Prize-Winning Team

With global headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, Syngenta has more than 28,000 employees spread over 90 countries “dedicated to the purpose of bringing plant potential to life through world-class science that helps increase crop productivity, protect the environment and improve health and quality of life” according to its Edelman presentation.

Along with Byrum, the Syngenta presentation team, led by Dan Dyer (head of seed product development at Syngenta), included Bruce Luzzi of Syngenta and Jack Kloeber of Kromite Consulting. Veteran INFORMS members John Birge and Arnold Greenland, CAP, served as coaches of Syngenta’s Edelman presentation team.

The award-winning presentation included videos featuring a wide range of Syngenta employees, from seed breeders in the field and greenhouses who had been won over by optimization tools after years of relying on their experience and intuition for cross-breeding purposes, all the way up to CEO Michael Mack, who sang the praises and potential of operations research and data-driven decision-making to fundamentally change and improve the way Syngenta operates at all levels.

Dyer, in accepting the Edelman Award from INFORMS President Robin Keller, said that, given the quality of the other finalists’ presentations, it “is a very deep honor and a real privilege for us to be chosen the winner here tonight. … Thank you for the inspiration, for what operations research has done for us and how it’s helping us to ensure food security in the world.”

Later, when asked if he was an “O.R. guy” now that Syngenta had won the Edelman, Dyer noted his appreciation for operations research dates back many years to his dissertation work in simulation modeling long before he moved into management roles. “We’ve had enormous data assets, but we really never had the tools to exploit it,” he said. “Operations research has completely transformed agriculture and agriculture research.”

According to Dyer, when it comes to O.R. and agriculture, the best is still to come. “This marks a new frontier for our industry,” he added. “We are pioneers in using operations research in the area of genetics development, but there are many other areas to explore. Climate and weather prediction, for example, are big issues for agriculture. We’re at an exploratory stage of figuring out how to really benefit from all the powers of analytics and data in agriculture.”

Syngenta’s cross-breeding soybean project resulted in up to 20 percent more  productive crops.

Syngenta’s cross-breeding soybean project resulted in up to 20 percent more productive crops. Photo Courtesy of Syngenta

Kloeber, founder of New Jersey-based Kromite, is likewise no stranger to operations research. A member of INFORMS and its predecessors for 25 years, Kloeber says he started thinking about competing for an Edelman Award 20 years ago. “All I wanted was to somehow, someday be a finalist,” he says. “To be a part of the winning team is amazing. Syngenta has been so receptive to what we do, while looking to improve their organization, it’s been very easy working with them.”

Kromite developed some of the optimization tools that were vital to Syngenta’s cross-breeding project.

When asked what he thought put the Syngenta team over the top in the Edelman competition, Greenland, the team coach, said, “First of all, they worked really hard. They dedicated themselves to this (competition). The other factor is they had a great story to tell. Bringing operations research to that area (agriculture), as far as I know, has never really been done before. And then to make these kind of massive changes to improve the company, well, it was a very exciting thing to be a part of. Finally, the quality of their work, the four components of the project, was outstanding.”

Greenland also noted that while the $287 million in development cost savings was impressive, the potential market benefit of producing better seeds could be “huge” – exceeding an estimated $1.5 billion in terms of additional portfolio value.

The Judges

The Edelman Award is a nearly yearlong competition that begins with a call for nominations, followed by a vetting and verification process. After the nominations are culled to six finalists, the competition culminates each spring with presentations before a panel of judges at the INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research. After listening to all of the presentations and questioning the presenters, the judges debate behind closed doors before selecting a winner.

Mike Trick chaired this year’s Edelman Award Committee and led the panel of judges. “All six finalists were fantastic,” Trick said. “The thing that really impressed us about Syngenta is the way O.R. changed the organization. It changed the mindset of the organization. The CEO provided an extremely impressive video talking about how operations research made Syngenta operate much differently than it did before. The O.R. work itself was very impressive. It is amazing what cross-pollination can do, especially if you speed up the process, and O.R. made that possible. The newer seeds are producing up to 20 percent larger crops using the same resources.”

Anne Robinson, a former president of INFORMS and another Edelman judge, said Syngenta not only met but exceeded all the criteria that the judges typically look for in a winning entry. “The strength of their operations research application, the uniqueness, the transportability and the impact,” she said. “Syngenta had it all. The presentation was very well done. They also demonstrated high-level executive support. It’s always a tough call because once you get to this point of the competition, everybody is excellent.”

Concluded Trick: “It is clear that if we are going to feed an ever-increasing population with less space, water and other resources, we need to find highly productive plants, and the work of Syngenta is a big step in that direction.”

Peter Horner (horner@lionhrtpub.com) is the editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazine.


  1. http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2008/01/soybean-genome.html