Lab to Farm in 10 Years

August 24, 2012 08:58 PM
Lab to Farm in 10 Years

DuPont researchers "fail fast to succeed early"

With all the debate about capitalism being a good or evil force in the world, farmer challenges could remain unsolved without the resources provided by economic motivation.

Fortune 500 member DuPont sells shares of its company to the world on the bet that investors can earn dividends from the profits of commercial products sold globally. What does it take to bring a product to market that solves problems down on the farm?

"We invested $2 billion in R&D in 2011," says Julia Wheeler, director of research and development at the DuPont Stine-Haskell Research Center in Newark, Del. Focusing on the big problems of the world such as food production and security, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and keeping people and the environment safe is a tall order for any company. As if to emphasize DuPont’s current priority, Wheeler adds that "62% of that R&D budget is focused on food."

Bringing a new product to market is not for the faint of heart: DuPont is trying to build better mousetraps in record time to beat its competitors, satisfy industry-related regulators and turn a profit for investors. The kicker is that it typically takes eight to 10 years from product concept to retail shelves, according to David Leva, research manager for DuPont Crop Protection. That means operating on a wing and a prayer because no money is coming in during that time—it’s all going out.

In order to jump-start the process, Wheeler says, DuPont takes a whole-organism approach rather than a cellular approach. Using what she calls visual assays, researchers apply chemicals to determine their cause and effect on plant leaves or insects. Wheeler refers to this method as
"failing fast" when time is of the essence. She says that "50,000 chemical compounds are screened per year and 95% of those compounds tested will be inactive."

Underscoring the fact that this is truly a numbers game, Leva adds that it might take 150,000 compounds to get one commercial product. That process means it can take seven or more years at a cost of more than $200 million to discover, develop and register a new product before investors see a dime from it.

Finally, once it looks like an effective product is discovered, it is put to the test in a real-world application. The DuPont Crop Protection division’s Chesapeake Farms demonstration area is just the place for a reality check under farm-duplicated conditions. "We have development plots for the crop protection business," says farm manager Mark Conner. "These are products in the pipeline, getting closer to being registered. We also have current products [for testing] where we might be adding new uses to the label or testing for crop safety."

Huge payoff. What does all this private investment by a public company mean for farmers at home and society at large? "For every dollar invested in insecticides, U.S. growers gain $19 in increased production value," says Dan Vincent, entomologist for DuPont. Public or private, DuPont’s "fail fast to succeed early" philosophy is yielding a return on investment that just might help succeed in feeding an increasingly hungry world.

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