Learn how a global specialty minerals and chemicals company utilized external innovation to find a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way to grow plants.

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ICL ran a Challenge with Wazoku to utilize external innovation and find more environmentally friendly media to grow plants in. Traditional methods that use peat as a growth medium are linked to carbon release, and several countries are limiting the use of peat.

Israel Chemicals Limited is committed to making an impact in the world through food, agriculture, and industrial products, to advance humanity for a more sustainable future. Its projects range across numerous industries, including but not limited to: agriculture, food, transportation, health, minerals, manufacturing, and energy.

Its innovation program is among the most advanced in the world, excelling not only in the specific region or niche but across boundaries. With over 750 granted patents, ICL’s search for effective innovations is backed by a $52m yearly investment in R&D – averaging a million dollars a week on researching opportunities and developing solutions. This fully resourced innovation ecosystem has access to the full scope of ICL’s knowledge, experience, and global reach to transform new ideas and technology into tomorrow’s solutions.

“We’re changing the face of environmentally friendly growing by reducing carbon emissions caused by using peat. The 5 exciting solutions from this Challenge have drastically helped our Growing Media program, providing us with new opportunities to explore.”

Robert Stenekes
Dr. Robert Stenekes
Director External Innovation at ICL Group

The Background

As part of one of ICL’s four corporate sustainability initiatives, ‘#1: Our Environment’ shows its commitment to further investment in renewable resources. ICL’s dedication to ‘reducing the usage of peat (partially decayed vegetation or organic matter)’ led to the creation of the Ideation Challenge, Sustainable and Economical Peat Replacement for Horticulture.

Peat is a traditional and widely-used material for growing plants. Its widespread availability, low cost to extract, and suitability as a growth medium has meant that in several countries, peat is the most used material in horticulture. Its characteristics that make it so desired in small and large-scale horticulture are its low pH level, good water-holding capacity, and aeration.

However, peat is not a limitless resource and its use is linked to carbon release. Peat bogs across the world act as carbon stores and when peat is extracted for use in horticulture and industry, the trapped carbon is released. This carbon dioxide gas contributes to global warming and the degradation of the ozone layer. Peatlands are also important for the water cycle and table, holding about 10% of global freshwater. Peat’s long growth timelines means that it is not technically renewable. At current rates of removal this is not sustainable as peat only grows around 1mm a year.

The reliability and cost-effectiveness of using peat as a growth medium means that changes to this established use are slow and often dismissed. When other media are suggested, they would need to be relatively similar in cost and effectiveness to be considered.


Solvers engaged with the Challenge


of global freshwater is held in peat


investment in R&D annually


new industries to discuss implementation with key contacts

The Challenge


ICL were looking for the crowd’s ideas on more sustainable, peat-free materials for use in growing plants. The Horticulture team was primarily interested in materials from waste streams or by-products of other processes – contributing to ICL’s goals for sustainability and making growing more economical and equitable.

ICL’s Challenge was posted on InnoCentive, Wazoku’s external innovation center. By using the force multiplier of the millions of global problem solvers in the Wazoku Crowd, the Challenge resulted in five awarded solutions. These ideas from Solvers outside ICL’s immediate ecosystem each addressed the solution requirements: providing detailed proposals and rationale for why and how their chosen material would work as a peat alternative in growing plants. Each awarded Solver for this Challenge received a share of the $15,000 reward for their efforts.

Why did ICL utilize External Innovation?

For this peat replacement opportunity, ICL wanted to canvas ideas from a broader audience, rather than specific R&D groups of their Horticulture division. Internal R&D teams can often look at problems through direct industry knowledge and established constraints, so using the Wazoku Crowd helped them bypass these practices.

Using crowdsourcing with millions of global problem solvers in our Wazoku Crowd helps companies source perspectives they would normally miss out on. Over 80% of winning Solvers from our two decades in external innovation don’t fit traditional company hiring profiles. ICL benefited from hearing diverse ideas from Solvers around the globe and investigating these opportunities further.

The Challenge resonated globally, attracting 235 active Solvers who engaged with the content. ICL’s commitment to increasing the sustainability of horticulture to create a more circular economy proved to be popular. Solvers from our crowd align with Wazoku’s mission to change the world, one idea at a time: helping ICL achieve sustainability.

“Waste isn’t waste until we waste it. ICL’s sustainability plans and emphasis on the circular economy led to the focus on using by-products from other industries. The success of the Challenge has aided our goal to use more renewable resources, providing sustainability in ecology, economy, and equity.”

Dr. Eleni Siasou
Dr. Eleni Siasou
R&D Manager, Growing Media at ICL Professional Horticulture

The Solutions and the role of Wazoku

The five awarded solutions each described a waste or by-product of other processes and described in detail how that material would make an excellent substitute for peat in growing plants:

  • One Solver suggested using a by-product of a large global crop industry – a material that is abundant and inexpensive. Their suggestion was backed by scientific analysis of peat and the proposed material: showing that there is a close similarity in chemical composition of the two products.
  • A second solution proposed using fibres from a cultivated crop. The solution included a detailed diagram of the machinery and process required. This idea benefited from being achievable with the crop’s fast-growing nature, and the existing sustainability of this crop industry.
  • The third awarded solution consisted of the use of fibres from a plant material. This Solver team had already completed a field study on the suitability of this material for plant growth and recommended the appropriate machinery for the processes.
  • A fourth solution suggested the use of a natural by-product which is found abundant in ecosystems. Public and private organizations manage this material as part of their existing operations, and the use of this by-product contributes to a circular economy model. This Solver provided existing published studies about topsoil made from the proposed material.
  • The fifth solution suggested using a material derived from recycling processes that is found in high volumes. The Solver had conducted R&D trials with promising results. It is a cost-efficient material and its use complements the sustainability agenda of ICL.

Outcomes and ICL’s future innovation plans

How are you looking to implement Awarded solutions?

The Horticulture and Growing Media teams are contacting the awarded Solvers to explore their ideas further. While some Solvers were content with submitting their literature-based ideas to the Challenge, others are providing ICL with key contacts and are keen to set up projects to see their ideas come to fruition. The capability of our Solvers isn’t only based in their solutions to a Challenge – it can often be bolstered by knowledge of industry contacts through years of experience in a specific field.

Future external innovation plans

There were a multitude of future opportunities delivered by this Peat Replacement Challenge’s success. ICL might be able to collaborate and utilize various methods or tech in providing new, more sustainable growth media. The flexibility afforded by this Ideation Challenge means that the team can adjust solutions to meet their needs and create new products, or can store the research and implement the opportunity at a later date.

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