Reflecting on 150 years of innovation at Bayer

Bayer, the German sciences company, is turning 150 years old this year.

Whoop dee doo, I hear you say.

Before you stop reading this and move on to stories about Kate Middleton’s baby bump, just consider what 150 years of science and innovation means.

For one thing, this company is almost as old as our whole country, if you take Waitangi as our start. That’s a long time to survive two world wars, hostile takeovers by the state and competitors, three global recessions, multiple oil shocks, globalisation and all the radical changes in technology since its founding in 1863.

It’s also survived some dark days. After World War One, Bayer was rolled into IG Farben, a mega-industrial firm that like most large German manufacturers was used by the Nazis for the war effort and to deliver the Holocaust. Farben was a participant in the death camps and one of its senior staff was convicted at Nuremberg for war crimes. Following the war, the Allies broke up Farben and Bayer once again became a standalone company.

These days Bayer is a holding company consisting of three listed companies Healthcare, Crop Science and Material Science. Collectively it turns over 36.5 billion euros and spends 3 billion euros on R&D.

We don’t have anything of this scale in New Zealand, so there’s a lot to learn. In November Bayer invited me to an innovation showcase and I saw first-hand how this impressive company makes discovery and commercialisation the cornerstone of its business. I’m no academic and you can probably find better analyses in Harvard Business Review. But here’s three reflections:

Confidence in innovation

The commitment to innovation is built on a successful past. Among its many hundreds of discoveries Bayer created:  

·  Aspirin - arguably the most commercially successful drug ever
·  Polyurethane – the stuff we eat off, walk on and slap around our houses
·  Polycarbonate – the stuff plastics are made of

From this history springs belief and behaviour. In every part of the company, from discussions over lunch to the high-tech pharmaceutical labs, I experienced an unwavering belief that innovation is the main driver of wealth creation. The question is not ‘why innovate?’ but ‘why aren’t we innovating enough?’


Despite recession in Europe and challenges with protecting ideas, the Bayer I saw was open and gracious in its style, both in person and as a company. Take its open innovation programme, which I’ve written about in the latest Idealog magazine (out now!).  The head of innovation, Dr Wolfgang Plischke, points out that although the company spends 2.75 billion euros on life sciences R&D every year, that's only one percent of the world's total life sciences research spend. "It's important to consider the other 99 percent," he says. The result is collaboration with a staggering 800 partners across the globe.


It wouldn’t be a visit to Germany without noticing how disciplined the company is. Whether it’s in the neatness of the campus, the precision of its high-tech tools, or the quality of presentations, the professionalism was phenomenal. Germans are famously un-funny but there’s a lot to admire about their commitment to excellence.
As a communications guy I was especially taken by the quality of the media the company produces, in video, print and online. Check out some of their videos. Not Oscar-winning performances but I bet we can learn a thing or two about how to sell science.

I’ll be blogging over the next few days about other things I’ve learned from Bayer. Or if you prefer, here’s a video of a cat.

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