His mission: to "future-proof" upcoming agricultural innovations so that measures implemented today have a better chance of remaining commercially relevant five, 10, perhaps even 20 years down the road.
Without a crystal ball, that’s pretty hard to do, especially given the warp speed at which today’s technology can render a new product, service or model obsolete almost before it hits the market. So corporate America has reacted with its own power play: the chief innovation officer (CIO), one of the more recent additions to the C-level suite. CIOs wake up every morning with one persistent thought looping through their brainwaves: how to out-innovate the Bill Gateses and Steven Jobses of the world.
For Connolly that process takes place on a unique playing field - the world’s farmlands. His mantra is to ensure that products, services and technological systems in the ag pipeline won’t need to be significantly updated as technology advances. To accomplish that, he works closely with Alltech’s 90 scientists and 250-person research team to “future-proof” its endeavors.
“My role is not to run research but to bring commercial insights to the research team and make sure that our research is commercially relevant,” said Connolly, an Alltech vice president who has been with the company 25 years. He also teaches marketing at UC Dublin’s Smurfit School and agribusiness at China Agricultural University in Beijing.
At Alltech his focus centers mainly on what is known as “incremental innovation” rather than “fundamental innovation.” The distinction: Fundamental innovation means creating something that has never existed before. Incremental innovation takes something that already exists and improves it.
Connolly offers this example: “Apple in my view is very good at incremental innovation. They didn’t invent the tablet computer, but they created one — the iPad — that was easier to use and much more consumer-friendly. They didn’t create the phone, but they created the iPhone, which turned out to be a more useable form of a phone.”
Therein lies Alltech’s strength, said Connolly, pointing to the burgeoning needs of the world’s food supply, with a projected nine billion mouths to feed by the year 2050. “There is a gap between current (animal production) performance and genetic potential, which Alltech can bridge. Today we know that cows and chickens generally underperform compared to their genetic ability by about 30 percent,” he said. In other words, an animal that is producing 100 units of milk, meat or eggs should be producing 130.
“The key to achieving that is fine-tuning nutrition,” said Connolly. Among Alltech’s major innovations is its study and application of nutrigenomics, the science of how nutrition affects gene expression. “It’s a matter of ‘feeding the genes’ to get the most from an animal’s genetic ability. It’s important because there is a huge gap.”
It’s not just a matter of productivity, however. Increasingly, said Connolly, consumers are demanding that food be more sustainable and that production animals be kept in conditions that are welfare-friendly. “Tasty food, meat quality and the environmental impact of what we do are all very important,” he said.
Alltech has been committed to addressing those concerns for decades, added Connolly, but the concept took time to grow roots. He recalled the reaction in 1989 when Archimede Mordenti, a professor and featured speaker at the annual Alltech International Symposium, proposed that the agriculture industry should be “A-C-E”- animal, consumer and environmentally friendly.
In 1989 that was quite a controversial concept. I remember that a segment of the audience stood up and walked out, saying, ‘This is not the way agriculture should be thinking. We should be thinking about feed efficiency and productivity.’ And yet today it is very clear that it is such a fundamental part of the way agriculture thinks in all aspects about the way in which we produce food.”
A future-proofing initiative currently on Connolly’s plate involves studying the top 50 food companies in the world to find out what they envision as challenges they will face in meeting the future demands of consumers. “I’m excited because I think it fits very well with some of the innovations we’re involved with. I think this is the direction we want to take,” he said, adding that Alltech has refined its focus to 80 key questions and eight categories within those questions. The study is expected to be part of the discussion during the Alltech REBELation in Lexington, Kentucky, from May 16-20.
Connolly noted the recent advent of fundamental innovations in agriculture that help with the collection of data about genes in animals, sometimes done with drones and robots. Issues have arisen relating to how those technologies are regulated. “The use of unmanned vehicles, specifically drones, will be absolutely game-changing,” said Connolly, noting that it is already occurring in plants and that robots are being used to milk cows.
“This is a huge part of how agriculture is moving forward. Even more fundamentally, if we are now able to measure inch-by-inch, centimeter-by-centimeter the fertility of soils on a farm, is that data owned by the farmer, or for example by John Deere, or a food company such as a Nestle, or a seed company or the government?” asked Connolly.
“That information is critical in terms of applying fertilizers better, getting the seeds to grow better, the use of new technologies increasing yields on that farm, potentially even the nutrients that are produced or grown into those crops that come from those soils. There are so many different avenues that technology is taking to revolutionize the way agriculture is done today.
“Above all else I’d say the revolution that we saw in supermarkets 10 years ago is occurring today in plants. And the revolution of data collection that is occurring in plants today will occur in animals in 10 years,” he said. “It’s very exciting in terms of what we could do in terms of the big questions like feeding the planet.”