An 'open' approach to crop input development

Willie Vogt View of rows of young corn plants in field
BUILDING NEW MARKETS: UPL is exploring new tools and technologies for crop protection, working with startups across a range of crops and markets.
UPL has evolved from a post-patent world to collaborate with many to develop new tools and products for agriculture.

The pace of change, and the growth in opportunity, in agriculture can open new doors to creative thinkers taking a nimble approach to this market. It also challenges management at companies working to serve this industry. UPL is finding new footing as it charts a course into a new, more open approach to product development.

“Two years ago, with the purchase of Arysta Life Sciences — that really gave us a global footprint and the ability to work in all the major agricultural markets across the world,” says Adrian Percy, chief technology officer, UPL. “Traditionally, the company had been associated with generic and post-patent products.”

That’s changing, and Percy is helping to lead that charge. He explains that today, UPL is working to develop proprietary products for the market and seeking new forms of innovation, and its approach to that quest is different from its competitors.

Using what Percy calls an “OpenAg” philosophy, UPL is working to collaborate with a growing number of startups to nurture ideas from lab to field. “Our OpenAg philosophy is a little bit different from what I would say is the industry standard, because we’re really looking to work on solving different grower pain points through collaboration,” he notes.

Rich startup environment

The explosion in ag technology development in the past decade has seen a lot of new digital and data products come to market, but Percy points to another area of development. “The biological area has really exploded,” he says. “There are companies emerging in all kinds of spaces.”

He points to startups focused on biocontrols to take on diseases and insects with novel, biobased ingredients. And another area of interest are bio-stimulant and soil health-focused products that offer the potential to boost crop yield. There are a few startups working on the chemical side of the business, too, but limited due to the high capital cost of market entry.

There are key benefits to the bio-focused products. They are usually very targeted, with little impact on nontarget animals or plants; consequently, regulators see new biologicals as more benign environmentally, which can move them to market faster, allowing all parties to leverage that research and development investment faster.

With all those potential collaborators, how to choose who to work with? “We have a strong focus on farmer pain points,” he says. “What are the unmet needs of growers in various agricultural markets around the world?”

UPL has had success in Latin America growing to top market positions in Chile and Mexico, and Percy sees plenty of potential to grow business in the U.S., too. And this open strategy is a key part of that approach.

The company opened the OpenAg Research and Development Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., in 2020. It’s in this space that UPL is teaming up with startups to explore market opportunities.

From idea to market

One rich opportunity, Percy explains, is moving a product from lab to the field. Many startups with solid ideas are hobbled by a lack of access to traditional outlets to connect product to customer. This is an area where UPL has that established market relationship with distributors and dealers.

Percy notes the company is already involved in several projects to evaluate new tools for the market. Evaluation of those products continues, but he is optimistic about their development.

“There’s so much innovation that’s being developed by smaller companies, by startups and entrepreneurial innovative companies that are very nimble,” he says. “We can partner with those companies, evaluate the technology quickly and then bring them to market in partnership with them, and basically create a win-win.”

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