Tools and Weapons with Brad Smith

Bill Anderson: Using AI to combat hunger

Episode Summary

Bayer CEO Bill Anderson considers himself a scientist at heart, a chemical engineer by training, and a lifelong student of biotechnology. Now at the helm of a 160-year-old German pharmaceutical and agriculture company, he's employing science and technology with a bold mission — Health for All, Hunger for none. In this episode, Bill discusses AI’s role in accelerating agricultural breakthroughs that are needed to feed a a growing population, including helping smallholder farmers become more resilient to climate change. And he discusses how this intersection of science and technology is empowering employees to unblock innovation within the company.

Episode Notes

Bayer CEO Bill Anderson considers himself a scientist at heart, a chemical engineer by training, and a lifelong student of biotechnology. Now at the helm of a 160-year-old German pharmaceutical and agriculture company, he's employing science and technology with a bold mission — Health for All, Hunger for none.

In this episode, Bill discusses AI’s role in accelerating agricultural breakthroughs that are needed to feed a a growing population, including helping smallholder farmers become more resilient to climate change. And he discusses how this intersection of science and technology is empowering employees to unblock innovation within the company.

Click here for the full transcript

Episode Transcription

Brad Smith (00:01):

I am Brad Smith, and this is Tools and Weapons. On this podcast, I'm sharing conversations with leaders who are at the intersection of the promise and the peril of the digital age. We'll explore technology's role in the world as we look for new solutions for society's biggest challenges.

Bill Anderson (00:24):

The way that our food comes to our table I think is often overlooked. We just think, well, food comes from the grocery store and it's like, wow, actually, it's quite an endeavor. It involves hundreds of millions of farmers around the world that do great work, but an amazing amount of technology as well.

Brad Smith (00:44):

That's Bill Anderson, the CEO leading the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer. Born in Texas and trained at both University of Texas, Austin and MIT, Bill considers himself a scientist at heart, a chemical engineer by training, and a lifelong student of biotechnology. People all over the world know Bayer for drugs like aspirin, the 160-year-old company's trademark product that people still depend on today. But providing health for all is only half of Bayer's mission. The other half is hunger for none. In this conversation, Bill and I discuss how the company is using artificial intelligence paired with CRISPR technology to increase food production without fertilizers. Their efforts put AI and digital tools in the hands of farmers to get the most out of every acre on a hotter, more crowded planet. And Bill shares how he's instilling a renewed culture of innovation and empowerment at a company that has been in business since the US President Abraham Lincoln was in the White House. To hear more conversations like this one, I invite you to follow or subscribe to the podcast wherever you're listening now. My conversation with Bill Anderson, up next on Tools and Weapons.


Well, thank you, Bill. Bill Anderson, CEO of Bayer, or Bayer as it is called in Germany, where the company is based. You, I think have a fascinating job. You started last year, CEO of a company that has been around literally since Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States and is now at the forefront of addressing some of the world's most pressing and important challenges, literally how do we feed the world? But as I'm seeing you, what our listeners can't see, there is a poster on your wall with the word aspirin. That's how Bayer got started. Tell us about the history of the company you're leading.

Bill Anderson (03:00):

Yeah, well thanks Brad, and really great to be here with you and your listeners. Yeah, it's a fascinating company. Last year was the 160th anniversary, and it's a company that has contributed so many things over the years, including the great product aspirin, which is actually the Bayer trade name, and that's probably one of the most widely used medicines that's also one of the oldest that we're using today. I mean, obviously there are many medicines that predate that, but of the modern era. We have people in three main areas. We have consumer health products, which includes things like aspirin, but also many other common remedies that we sort of take for granted. But it's kind of a big deal that you can go down to the local drugstore or the pharmacy or the grocery store and buy things to help you with health issues.


We take it for granted in the West, but we're working to make those products available to a hundred million additional people over the coming few years in countries around the world where they don't necessarily have that ability to do that. We think, "Oh, I have a headache. Let me get some aspirin." We take it for granted, but we're working to bring that around the world. We have a pharmaceutical R&D enterprise that's working on novel medicines, including things like the leading treatment for prostate cancer in the US now, many other serious diseases, blood clots, things like this.


And then we also have a whole other part of the world knows about is we're the largest provider of agricultural inputs in the world. So this is seeds and crop protection chemicals and digital farming solutions. The way that our food comes to our table, I think is often overlooked. We just think, well, food comes from the grocery store and it's like, wow, actually, it's quite an endeavor. It involves hundreds of millions of farmers around the world that do great work, but an amazing amount of technology as well and Bayer is the leader in agricultural technology in the world today.

Brad Smith (05:06):

I want to get into all of that, but first I'd love to hear a little bit about you. You were born in a very small town in Texas. You grew up in Texas. You've said on LinkedIn that you consider yourself a scientist at heart, a chemical engineer by training, and a lifelong student of biotechnology. But how did a kid from Texas end up as the CEO of such an important global company based in Germany?

Bill Anderson (05:32):

I went to school at the University of Texas. I studied chemical engineering, and after I got out, I worked a few roles in the chemical industry. I went back to grad school, and when I was at grad school, I came across biotechnology and I thought, "This is amazing. I mean, we can splice genes, we can change cells so that we can fix the cells that have gone wrong in a human body, or we can program a cell to produce a protein that's very beneficial, and I want to be a part of this. I think this is going to be increasingly important in the world." And so I got my first job in biotechnology in 1997, and yeah, I've been sort of at it ever since. It's an amazing thing what we can do today and the rate at which technology is advancing is probably just as dramatic or even more dramatic as it is in the fields of semiconductors and software, so it's a life passion.

Brad Smith (06:43):

One of the things I love about Bayer is the mission that you've defined as health for all, hunger for none. We have 8 billion people on planet Earth today. All of the projections say that in our lifetime that'll reach 10 billion people and just feeding the world is becoming a bigger challenge. We'll dive into your solutions, but can you say a little bit about how you and your colleagues at Bayer think about the problems that you're there to solve and the mission that creates for every employee?

Bill Anderson (07:18):

Yeah, for sure. We have a mission statement at Bayer that is very near and dear to all our employees' hearts, which is health for all, hunger for none. It's a very bold statement, and I think we all realize that it's probably not fully attainable in our lifetimes, but I can assure you that's not just something for the website. In fact, when I arrived, one of the first questions I got from many people I encountered was, "You're not going to change the mission, are you? You're not going to change the mission." But I took that opportunity to ask people about it and why is it so important to you? What does it mean to you? And basically they said, "Yeah, it provides incredible clarity. That's what we're here for. It puts everything else into context." And by the way, we can come back to this, but I think it's really important to have a mission like that because we have so many competing opportunities, competing demands on our time, and when you have a clear mission like that, it helps you say no to a lot of things and focus on what's most important.


But how we think about it, let me take the part about hunger for none--we don't have that today in the world. I know maybe in the west we have obesity epidemic, and people might think, "Oh, food security, is that really a big issue?" For hundreds of millions of people in the world today, right now, food security is not a term, it's reality. It's a, "Am I going to be able to feed my kids today?" And unfortunately, often the answer is no. That got actually worse over the last few years with the war in Ukraine, with the effect of the pandemic. So this is no idle thing. This is no trivial matter. And it gets worse because not only do we need to feed, for example, 2 billion more people, but we probably need to do it with less arable land because unfortunately, crop land is being depleted.


By the way, crop land also competes with forest land, which we need to combat global warming and to absorb carbon. We also are losing water supply in many key agricultural areas in the world. The water supply is dwindling, croplands coming out of production, and we've got to do it arguably with less chemicals and reduce amounts of say fertilizer and other things that can pollute. So this is a big problem, and that's the nature of our problem, and we have the largest R&D efforts in the world on this, but basically, how can we produce more corn, more rice, more soybeans, more other essential food stuffs with less land, less water, less need for other interventions?

Brad Smith (10:04):

I think you've just defined one of the most expansive and fundamental challenges for our generation of people. And one of the things that is interesting is your reference to the mission, same mission, but I think you're taking Bayer into a new chapter. In fact, I was struck when you were named CEO, the chair of the supervisory board of the company said that they were looking to you. They saw you as the ideal candidate together with this team to lead Bayer into what was called a new successful chapter at a time of disruptive innovation--a disruptive innovation cycle in biology, in chemistry, and an artificial intelligence. So now we're talking about a challenge that is literally older than civilization, the need to feed people with the newest generation of technology. How do you see these intersecting?

Bill Anderson (11:03):

Oh, wow. I see amazing examples of this on a regular basis here. I'll give you just a couple examples. So we are the largest provider of corn seeds in the world, and the corn that's going to be grown this spring, that's going to be planted this spring, is not the same as the corn seeds that were planted two or three years ago. By the way, the corn seed that's being planted in Iowa is not the same as the corn seed that's being planted in Brazil or Argentina or Germany or Ukraine. And we, as part of our efforts in corn seed, we're creating about 50,000 new genetic variants of corn seed per year. Now, what do you do with 50,000 new genetic variants? Well, one thing, you have to characterize them genetically, which means you have to be able to take a sample from a seed of corn that's large enough to do a full genomic characterization, but small enough that it doesn't harm the viability of the seed.


So imagine doing that for 50,000. It's like we just did the human genome a couple decades ago. It took hundreds of thousands of person years of effort, and now we're basically doing this 50,000 times a year in corn alone. Another example, crop protection chemicals. Crops around the world they have threats from fungus, from insects, and from weeds. Those three factors--fungi, insects, weeds--they can reduce the yield of the crops up to a hundred percent, but quite frequently, 60, 70, 80% yield loss. And we need new approaches because those three forces, they evolve. Insects evolve, they evolve resistance to insecticides, fungi, they evolve resistance to fungicide and so on. And so we have to stay one step ahead and in order to do that, we're using machine learning models that are modeling up to 18 parameters, looking at the chemistry of novel compounds to try to predict.


If you have a compound library of let's say a billion chemicals, which a hundred of the billion might have certain properties that are advantageous? For example, that they break down easily in the natural environment, that they would harm harmful insects, but not good insects and so on. So it's an amazing coming together of sort of the natural with technology for feeding the world.

Brad Smith (13:50):

You are bringing new technology that people may not be familiar with--the notion of splicing a gene to grow a better crop. At one level I can understand why people when they hear about artificial intelligence, their first reaction is, "Well, I don't really want artificial anything. Why would I want artificial intelligence?" Or modified: "Why would I want the most natural things in the world to be modified by science and technology?" But there's a very clear reality. You take a continent like Africa, 1.3 billion people, a growing population. It has the capacity with the kinds of technologies that Bayer is developing to not only feed itself but export food to the world. And yet today it is a continent that has to import food, it has countries that face real hunger. And so literally, technology is the difference maker, but it does require a conversation. How do you think about the work that you need to do, that Bayer, maybe that all of us that invent technology need to do to talk with the world so they understand this technology and give them the confidence that it will be used well?

Bill Anderson (15:12):

Yeah. Yeah. That's a very important topic. Unfortunately, with the original introduction of genetically modified plant organisms, I don't think the communications was not nearly sufficient. So we have a situation today where, for example, biotechnology in human health is widely accepted. We have countless cures for various cancers, for many other serious diseases. I've had the privilege of being involved in developing a number of those over the years, and these are life changers, and nobody's protesting the use of monoclonal antibodies to provide solutions for people with multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis or lung cancer. Nobody's protesting that, but many people are concerned about genetically modified organisms in the food chain. And it's very unfortunate because at the advent of these technologies, one could reasonably ask questions about, "Hey, what is the effect of this? Might something go wrong?" But here we are now 30 years after the introduction of the first genetically modified plants into food production and what we've seen is tremendous benefits in terms of yields, in terms of reducing the need for various pesticides, making plants more drought tolerant, and a whole number of benefits. In fact, we're literally feeding the world based on these technologies, but we still have many people with a bad feeling about it. And so we have an opportunity certainly to do a better job explaining this and what measures are being taken to ensure safety and to ensure that we stay in the positive side.

Brad Smith (17:14):

Ultimately, in order to feed the world, you have to reach the world. I'd like to ask you about a couple of aspects of that. I mean, the first is you create products that are used by farmers. One of the things, Bill, I know you're focused on at Bayer is what are called small holder farmers. I think these are people who have farms with 25 acres or less, and yet they account for 97% of the farmers in the world. There's 550 million smallholder farmers, especially in the lower and middle income countries. In a world now with increasingly ubiquitous, not complete, but increasingly ubiquitous internet access, in a world where AI can be put to work, I know that one of the things our two companies are working on together is how to harness the power of data to help even small holder farmers in every part of the world. What do you see as the future of data for helping, say, a farmer with a smaller plot of land?

Bill Anderson (18:20):

Well, for sure think of things like helping farmers to make better decisions about which type of seed to plant, about how much water they need to apply. This can relate to weather prediction, which is obviously an area where AI has made huge strides in recent years, but also even with a given set of weather circumstances, how much water is needed? What other tools might be required? Is a chemical crop protection, does it need to be applied or done? Right now, a lot of times farmers are needing to apply insecticides, pesticides of other sorts sort of proactively because they're not sure, and they don't want to take a chance and be too late. So we might be able to use technologies to better predict, "Hey, actually maybe you don't need to use a crop protection treatment at this point, and you can wait." So there's a lot. And by the way, those things, those are good for the environment, but they're really good for the farmer's economics if they can defer use of certain inputs that cost money.

Brad Smith (19:29):

For many people in the world, perhaps the most basic staple of their diet is rice. And at a time where water is under stress, rice actually accounts for 43% of the world's total irrigation water in terms of the techniques used to grow rice today. It even accounts for one and a half percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. You're focused on changing that with what I understand is called direct seeded rice. Tell us what that is and tell us what you're doing.

Bill Anderson (20:02):

Yeah, yeah. So rice farming, the old traditional method has a couple challenges. One is it takes a lot of water, and in many places, we're being challenged about how much water is available, right? Second, using water as a herbicide, basically, you choke, drown the plants with water, but then they ferment, they basically rot under the water. And when they do that anaerobically, they produce methane instead of carbon dioxide. Of course that's a problem because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So we have an approach called direct seeded rice that would work in many of these countries, would allow smallholder farmers to produce rice. So we're looking at like 40% less water, 45% lower greenhouse gas emissions, and something that also can be a labor saver, because in many of these countries, they used to have large families and they could have the children sort of transplanting the seedlings from one plot to another.


The reason it's called direct seeded is you can put it straight out in the fields, and it also lowers the labor requirements, which is part of helping small holders move beyond subsistence, that they could actually have an opportunity to better their economic life. It's big news for 150 million smallholder farmers around the world who grow rice.

Brad Smith (21:32):

In a similar way, for any of us who remember our high school chemistry and biology, and I have to admit on many days I'm probably pressed to do that, we can recall that plants need nitrogen to grow. Nitrogen is abundant in the air, but plants don't produce it themselves, hence the need for fertilizer. And for more than a century, science has been advancing fertilizer. In fact, two Germans won the Nobel Prize for this in the 20th century, but you are taking it into new terrain entirely with your focus on AI and gene editing. What are you trying to do and how are you trying to do it?

Bill Anderson (22:18):

Yeah, so the key here is, as you said, there's lots of nitrogen available in the air, but it's not the kind... It's N2, it's nitrogen molecules. They're not available for easy absorption by plants, by most plants, but certain kinds of plants called legumes, like beans, soybeans would be an example of this. They actually have a certain kind of bacteria that kind of cohabit their root structures, and these bacteria can basically process the N2 and convert it into a form of nitrogen that is accessible to the plants and can nourish them. Partners that we're working with, like Ginkgo Bioworks, we're basically programming the bacteria that can work with the plant root system and convert nitrogen so that you can have a plant like corn that doesn't produce nitrogen actually producing some of its own nitrogen and replacing conventional fertilizer.


That has huge implications for things like nitrification, which is a type of pollution that happens with nitrogen fertilizer runoff into rivers and bodies of water, but also nitrogen fertilizer production is a huge user of energy. And to be able to harness bacteria to do that work is potentially a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions. So it's again, another example of how biology and advances in biotechnology can help us on a road to a more sustainable future.

Brad Smith (24:10):

So here we are talking about literally a human need that predates, I would be willing to bet, even the ability of humans to speak. They had to be able to eat, they had to find food. Now we have the latest technology that humanity has ever devised, and I think it also requires a lot of culture change within organizations and beyond. As you've come to take the helm of Bayer, how are you thinking about first within the organization you lead the role of culture and what you need to help people move forward to address?

Bill Anderson (24:52):

Yeah, obviously a huge topic. About seven, eight years ago, I started to put a lot of thought into that question because I was noticing this real dichotomy in the world that you have small companies, startups with an amazing kind of vitality, and then you had big companies with eight, 10 even more layers and I don't think you'd describe... You wouldn't use the word vitality to describe them. And so my question was, "Hey, is this just an inevitable consequence of being big is that you have to settle for this sort of soul crushing bureaucracy, or can it be better?" I started looking around... By the way, if I asked a hundred people that question, I think probably 95 said, "Yeah, that's the conundrum, and there's not much to do about it." But there were a few who pointed me to some really unusual companies who were doing things very differently, and that started a really important journey for me. And one of the extreme examples, you should check it out if you have a chance, there's a company in the Netherlands called Buurtzorg.

Brad Smith (26:03):

Why don't you spell the name of the company for those of us listening, so we can look it up?

Bill Anderson (26:08):

Yeah, it's B-U-U-R-T-Z-O-R-G. I think that's it. That has 16,000 employees and two managers.

Brad Smith (26:20):

Wow, that does sound rather extreme.

Bill Anderson (26:22):

Yeah, but maybe think about it this way, ask yourself, okay, so if you have 16,000 employees and two managers, who do you think does budgeting and planning? The two managers or the 16,000?

Brad Smith (26:37):

I would say the two managers are rather outnumbered, so they better have some other people doing that.

Bill Anderson (26:41):

Yeah. Who do you think when it's time to hire a new person for the team, who do you think?

Brad Smith (26:47):

I hope it's not just the two.

Bill Anderson (26:49):

Exactly, exactly. So basically the answer to every question is the people, right? In other words, the people make 99.9% of all decisions in that company, and the two managers probably make, I don't know, approximately 0.01% of the decisions. And then you say, "Well, how is that possible and can we do that in a different environment?" And so I started to experiment with this, I and my colleagues, and found out, you know what? There's a whole lot more we can do, putting decision making into the hands of the people doing the work. To be clear, this isn't about like, oh, we just hire great people and turn them loose. Have you ever heard that expression?

Brad Smith (27:31):

Oh, yeah. That's a frequently used expression.

Bill Anderson (27:33):

Total nonsense. Total nonsense. Okay. If you have a hundred thousand person company, you can't just turn people loose because it would be chaos and anarchy. It would last for about a week, and then people would say, "Hey, this is crazy. This is madness. Bring us back the hierarchy." But basically what it is, you implement a system that allows the people doing the work to make 95% of the decisions without 10 layers of hierarchy. That's a whole nother story, but that's basically what we're doing at Bayer.

Brad Smith (28:12):

Say a little bit more, because first of all, I've always thought people don't like bureaucracy, and it turns out they don't like anarchy either because both make it very difficult to make decisions. I'm guessing that you haven't come to Bayer and decided you're only going to have two managers. So how are you taking that concept which you can learn from and call it a more almost radical way and bringing it into a company like Bayer?

Bill Anderson (28:39):

Yeah, for sure. So as you said, the example in the Netherlands is a specific case where it's a company providing home nursing services. And so while every patient they help is different, the work has a certain commonality. They're nurses, and so they're able to come up with a rather simple set of rules and processes that everyone follows and then within that, hey, they have maximum freedom and autonomy. So a company like Bayer where we have thousands of products and hundreds of countries, there's not like a 10-page guidebook, and then everyone can go just do it. But it's a radical relook at every process, and so you have to redesign how work gets done so that it takes the manager out of 95% of the decision making. And so the managers become what we call visionary, architect, catalyst and coach. So there's no reviewing and approving.


In a typical hierarchical bureaucracy, the managers exist to review and approve stuff. We take that out and say, "No, the workers review and approve." I mean, they create the ideas and they decide on them, and they go. The role of the many fewer managers is to make sure that they've got a system by which good decisions can be made, that the decisions can kind of flow across teams, and that there's a continuity with the system. But anyway, I'm giving you a little window into it.

Brad Smith (30:12):

What is the role in that setting of something like communication? Because I would surmise that perhaps one of the keys to making it work is people having shared context, shared vision; as you said, people are visionaries. For a manager or certainly for you as the CEO, does it make communication itself something that is a bigger part of the job?

Bill Anderson (30:36):

Yeah, that's the key part of that vision part, right? And making sure in every part of the organization. There will still be leaders, we need leaders. We're not going to two. Okay, we'll have many leaders, but their role isn't to kind of set the priorities and cascade them, but rather the workers who are closest to the customer, closest to the product, they are deciding things. They're seeing the opportunities, they're making decisions, they're deploying resources, and the role of the leaders is to provide the vision, the overarching approach we call architecture and there's a lot of communication involved in that.

Brad Smith (31:17):

Let me just say thank you. Thank you for spending the time with me today. Thank you for helping us all get a little bit of a glimpse into the world in the company you're leading, but most importantly, thank you for what you and your colleagues at Bayer are doing, because truly the mission has never been more important than it is today.

Bill Anderson (31:36):

My pleasure, Brad. Thanks very much. And yeah, until next time.

Brad Smith (31:51):

You've been listening to Tools and Weapons with me, Brad Smith. If you enjoyed today's show, please follow us wherever you like to listen. Our executive producers are Carol Ann Browne and Aaron Thiese. This episode of Tools and Weapons was produced by Corina Hernandez and Jordan Rothlein. This podcast is edited and mixed by Jennie Cataldo with production support by Sam Kirkpatrick at RUN Studios. Original music by Angular Wave Research. Tools and Weapons is the production of Microsoft made in partnership with Listen.