Approaching Open Innovation With Open-Mindedness: A Lesson From Bayer’s Partnership With Trana Discovery

Lux recently spoke to Trana Discovery (client registration required) CEO Steve Peterson about the company’s research partnership with the Crop Science Division of Bayer. The partnership was announced in February, with the stated intention of discovering novel fungicides for agricultural pathogens. Trana will use its platform to screen for fungicide candidates, and pass those candidates to Bayer for testing in fungi. Trana’s approach is to use information about an organism’s gene expression machinery to uniquely and specifically target pathogens including viruses, fungi, and bacteria. Its platform is species-agnostic, though the company’s initial development work was in pursuit of treatments for HIV, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) in humans. The partnership leverages Trana’s screening platform to generate candidate fungicide chemistries with more agility than Bayer could do on its own.

This partnership with the Crop Science Division of Bayer represents a concrete first step for Trana into the agriculture industry. The company has historically – and without success – pitched its technology to would-be collaborators from the basis of proposing to develop a product for a specific pathogen – from Panama Disease in bananas to citrus greening (Huanglongbing disease) in citrus. Steve said the company’s approach was predicated on going after individual pathogens and diseases as means to attract investment.

Often, innovators get hung up on applications as endpoints for technologies rather than demonstrations of capability. When examining a start-up’s website, the “applications” section can read a bit like an online dating profile: “Company seeking partners who enjoy HIV research, citrus greening, and long walks on the beach.” However, Bayer’s move to work with Trana is not based on a simple shared taste in music or its work with any specific pathogen, and not on one of Trana’s self-identified applications for the technology. Rather, as Lux sees it, Bayer is going outside of the frequent application-first mentality when approaching open innovation, seeking to leverage Trana’s method in pursuit of more broadly applicable fungicides, looking for chemistries that can act against multiple species of fungi rather than a single pathogen.

Steve acknowledged in our discussion that the process would take longer and require more skill than the process to develop an anti-microbial against a single pathogen, and this partnership is likely make-or-break for his company in terms of the financial and time resources it will consume. However, he is optimistic about Trana’s ability to deliver on Bayer’s stated intention, and the company is still pursuing additional projects with other funding sources like USAMRIID. Fungicides for agriculture represent tens of billions of dollars in addressable market, and issues like residue management, cost, and phytotoxicity play significant roles in agrichemical companies’ searches for novel active ingredients. Bayer looked past Trana’s own vision for its platform, and has a chance at a blockbuster new fungicide as a result. The lesson to other open innovators is this: application-first thinking can artificially narrow the field of available collaborators and cause you to miss an otherwise promising match. By excluding a potential partner’s stated applications, and looking at technologies as use-agnostic tools, readers will be better positioned to take full advantage of open innovation opportunities. Not every technology has the potential to be a broadly applicable platform, but iterative screening tools like Trana’s are a good place to start looking.

By: Sara Olson