The world food crisis, exacerbated by accelerating climate change and the global financial crisis, requires that agricultural scientists solve ever more complex problems. Public–private partnerships will play a more critical role in developing agricultural technologies for developing nations to improve farm productivity and alleviate global hunger. In order to make public–private partnerships work, we must move from the ‘sector mentality’ and focus on combinatorial solutions resolving the most pressing issues. Critical observations from past and current efforts are helpful in designing new relationships and approaches towards driving innovation. Aggressively supporting the development of mutually-beneficial partnerships with a novel mindset will ensure that we fully exploit the tremendous potential that modern technologies promise.