Imagination at work

Imagination at work

Five CIO 100 honorees are boosting revenue, cutting costs and maybe saving the planet with cool technologies

If necessity is the mother of invention, then capitalism is surely the mother of innovation. Five of this year's CIO 100 honorees were driven to develop unique applications of undeniably cool technologies by the almighty dollar (the need to make it and to save it).

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s use of computer simulations to bring new tires to market has reduced the company's costs and driven revenue growth. Software developed by Monsanto is helping it breed genetically superior seeds that big commercial farmers are buying in droves. To prevent its energy costs from skyrocketing, public utility JEA implemented an intelligent system that determines the perfect mix of oil and natural gas to produce electricity while minimizing nitrous oxide emissions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Undersea Research Center built a network capable of transmitting large video files from an underwater lab to the Web in seconds to raise public awareness and government research funding. The Ohio State University Medical Center freed up maintenance staff and increased customer satisfaction by deploying robots to handle tasks such as removing trash and transporting meals.

The five companies feted in this story didn't pursue technological innovation for its geek chic; they did it to create a sustainable competitive advantage. "At the end of the day, as cool as this thing [we've developed] is, it's a tool," says Stephanie Wernet, Goodyear's CIO. "It is meant to serve a business end. In our case, this tool lets us put out new, more innovative products faster than the competition."

You don't have to be Goodyear's size to do something cool. The key to innovation isn't money. It's curiosity and collaboration. Getting the brightest minds from different functions working together on a problem is how great things happen. What made the technologies featured so useful and the efforts to develop them so fruitful was tight-knit cooperation between IT and other departments.

Read on to find out what each company did, why they did it, the significant benefits they're scoring as a result and what you can learn from their innovations.

Seeds of change

What: Monsanto's IT department created software to identify genes that indicate a plant's resistance to drought, herbicides and pests; those genetic traits are used to predict which plants breeders should reproduce to yield the healthiest, most bountiful crops. The software crunches data from breeders worldwide and presents it in a colorful, easy-to-comprehend fashion. By pinpointing the best breeding stock, it increases breeders' odds of finding a commercially viable combination of genetic traits from one in a trillion to one in five. Monsanto's global breeding organization drove the project.

Why: When its signature weed-killer Round-up went off patent, the St. Louis company invested in growing its seeds and genetic traits business, which comprises more than half of its $US6.3 billion revenue and $US255 million profits in 2005. Monsanto believes it can sell more corn, soybean and cotton seeds if farmers know its seeds will produce heartier crops and require fewer sprays of insecticide and herbicide, thus reducing costs.

Technology: The software is written in Java and .Net. The Java components run on networked Linux and Unix servers; the .Net components run on Windows XP in machines at the breeding stations.

Cool quotient: Monsanto's scientists use the software to effectively engineer seeds to resist drought and pests and to produce plants that are healthier for humans and animals to eat. They do it by implanting those seeds with the genetic material that makes a plant resist insects or produce more protein. What would Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, think of this? "This is really different from the way breeders bred their crops," says Monsanto CIO Mark Showers. "They didn't have this level of molecular detail to determine and select plants they wanted to move forward from year to year."

ROI: Monsanto reaps the benefit of its software but wouldn't reveal development costs. Earnings per share on an ongoing basis grew from $US1.59 to $US2.08, or 30 percent, from 2004 to 2005. Its EPS is expected to grow by 20 percent more in 2006. "In the last four or five years, we've had a marked improvement in taking market share from our competition. We've grown our share at a couple of points per year," says Showers.

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