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At Swiss research center: Syngenta seeks next big breakthrough

Walk through Syngenta's big Stein research center nestled in a bend of the Rhine River outside Basel, Switzerland, and you get an idea just how complex bringing new crop protection products to the market can be.

In the greenhouses and laboratories here, as many as a half million compounds are tested yearly. Each survivor eventually making it to market comes with a research and development price tag of more than $50 million.

That makes the search for new materials intense. “We want to be the recognized innovator in the crop protection industry, focusing on leading-edge science,” says David Nevill, Syngenta's head biochemist here.

With enough high-tech instruments here to make university scientists anywhere envious, the company seems well-positioned for that goal. The Stein facility boasts 8,000 square meters of greenhouses, 100 walk-in growth chambers, and 1,800 square meters of laboratories.

Combine that with Syngenta's applied biotechnology, seeds and crop research at Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, N.C., and its genomics work at La Jolla, Calif., along with additional research in England and Holland and many world-wide field stations. Each site plays a specific role in developing new products.

“Here at Stein, we screen things. We have state-of-the-art biological evaluation and screening systems focused on the company's strategic objectives,” Nevill says.

Technicians here raise insects used in testing. Each type of insect is kept in a separate growth chamber. Temperature, humidity and light are adjusted for optimal rearing conditions. They're fed specially-formulated diets for each type of insect. Fresh plants are brought in daily throughout the year. Testing requires that a never-ending supply chain of insects — eggs, larvae and adult — be available.

That isn't easy. Some caterpillar species are cannibalistic, so they must be reared individually in growth dishes. Filter paper must be perfumed with cabbage scent for cabbage moths to lay eggs.

“The staff has to develop insight for raising even the most difficult insects,” Nevill says.

Other technicians keep 30 to 40 major fungi ready for testing at all times. The company also grows its own weeds as potted plants before turning them over to the greenhouses, where gardeners watch over them. The gardeners turn out about a million crop plants for testing each year.

Six hundred substances arrive at the laboratory each week to be tested for efficacy against insects, weeds and diseases. Researchers discuss results at a weekly meeting. In all, more than 100,000 compounds a year make it to the biological screening stage, with more than 10,000 going on to field and market testing.

Of those, one might turn out to be worth putting on the market. “It takes nine or 10 years to get a product to the market and costs are enormous,” Nevill says.

But if the costs are enormous, so are the potential rewards. Syngenta, now the world's biggest crop protection company, had sales of almost $7 billion in 2000. Formed when Novartis merged with Zeneca, the company has 20,000 employees around the world, including 4,200 in North America, says Jan Capps, vice president for human resources and communications.

“Our ambition is to go to growers and say Syngenta can fill your needs, whatever you need. There's an enormous push to integrate that crop protection technology with seeds, bringing the major inputs together,” says Alfred Seiler, regulatory affairs section leader for selective herbicides.

This is a case where bigger is better, says Robert Durand, head of non-selective herbicides. “We have assistance online for farmers. We can help calculate chemical rates. We can help identify weed problems. We can quickly answer questions. We have the size and breadth of portfolio to have a specialist who knows that area, whatever it may be,” Durand says.

Right next door to the Stein site is the Novartis pharmaceuticals research facility. It's an ever-present reminder of the company's history and evolution as Ciba-Geigy and Novartis until its eventual breakup and the agribusiness unit's merger with Zeneca.


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