How Monsanto Is Expanding Its Footprint Through Data Analytics
Monsanto is more infamous for growing its genetically modified crops than its use of software, but a series of corporate acquisitions and a new emphasis on tech solutions has transformed it into a firm that acts more like an innovative IT vendor than an agribusiness giant. They are a good example of how agribusiness companies are getting interested in data analytics. Before an audience of entrepreneurs and civic leaders at a downtown St. Louis tech incubator entitled, "The Role of IT in Modern Agriculture," Jim McCarter (the Entrepreneur in Residence for Monsanto) reviewed where the company’s IT efforts are going. Before he came to Monsanto less than two years ago, McCarter ran his own biotech startup, where he developed pest control molecules. He is also is a genetics professor at Washington University. One of Monsanto’s goals is to produce crops that can double their yields by 2030. That focus on productivity and sustainable agriculture pervades the company’s culture—as well as the data analytics underlying it. "IT is becoming increasingly central to what we do, and we are integrating IT into all aspects of our business now," McCarter said. "Monsanto has become a data-driven culture." The proof is how much data the company tracks on a regular basis (see Monsanto's chart above). Monsanto’s core projects generate huge amounts of bits, especially its genomic efforts, which are the focus of so much public attention. Other big data gobblers are the phenotypes of millions of DNA structures that describe the various biological properties of each plant, and the photographic imagery of crop fields. All told, there are several tens of petabytes that need storage and analysis, a number that’s doubling roughly every 16 months. As a result, Monsanto has become a big user of Hadoop, H Base and other analytics-and-storage tools. The company is headquartered in St. Louis, with more than 21,000 employees in 500 different locations around the globe. About 5,000 of those employees are engaged in basic research and development, and the company is investing about $1.4 billion in research and development each year. That’s not at IBM or Microsoft levels, but it’s an impressive figure for a company that just a few years ago didn't have many IT-related employees. With all that tech muscle, the company has launched IT-based initiatives such as FarmCare, which sends mobile phone alerts about real-time weather threats to farmers, and North Star, a global supply chain transportation management system that has saved millions of dollars in overhead costs. Monsanto isn't trying to go at this alone. They’ve partnering up with other firms in specialized areas such as remote imaging, high performance computing and computational biology.