6 Questions to Max Plancks’ Tobias Ritter; solving problems with chemistry

We had a chat with chemist, Prof. Tobias Ritter, of the Max Planck Institute in Mülheim, following his recent feature in the Sygnature Guest Lecture webinar series which aired on April 27th, 2022.

What’s your philosophy when designing new chemistry – do you think of synthetic chemists, such as those here at Sygnature, as your end-users?

“We always start with a problem we want to solve. At Max Planck, the mantra is that we do fundamental research, but whenever there’s an application, we will take that as well. We’re interested in looking at how we can make advances with new chemistry.

I’ve learned that not every solution is going to have an impact – some are simply so complicated that no one is ever going to be interested in them. It took me a decade to realise this!

This doesn’t mean we are ignoring those complex scenarios, but we are trying to develop chemistry that is enabling, not merely esoteric fundamental discoveries with little practical application.

Every once in a while, we may find something that proves really useful, and we get feedback from industry that a lot of people are using it. This is a motivation for us to develop an area further. What the community does with our chemistry really helps reduce it to practice, as it does more than we could as a single research group.

What do you think defines that ‘practical application’?

Put simply, it has to work.

People have to be able to do a reaction with equipment they already have. It’s rare they will buy a new gadget to do chemistry. It’s the same with reagents. It’s no good saying that a catalyst is easy to make in ‘only’ eight steps – people rarely will go through that hassle. You have to be able to buy the compounds, and run the reaction, and it has to work.

How do you decide whether a problem is worth solving?

Solving problems that could really change the way people do things has always fascinated me.

One big problem we tried to address was late-stage functionalisation with 18F for making PET tracers. This had all the components required for me to get excited: there was no general existing chemical solution, and it could make an impact that goes beyond the chemistry community. What I loved about this is it led us to develop the first CF (Carbon Flourine) reductive elimination. It’s now more than a decade old, but it enabled something to be done that could not be done before, and we’ve built on it since then.

What about serendipity, where the result wasn’t clear at the outset?

Many great discoveries have come serendipitously, but not simply because people were browsing around hoping for serendipity. Most of the time, there was a clear hypothesis.

Discovery is, by definition, to find something unknown, but you need to look in an area where discovery is more likely.

That comes more likely with thorough education, and a well-formulated hypothesis through the scientific method.

Do you get frustrated that it takes so long to see whether your chemistry is being used in the pharma industry, with IP issues delaying publication? Or are you aware that people are interested in your chemistry before the publications come out?

No, I’ve never felt frustrated at that. We’ve even had a number of collaborations, with co-authored papers, which is also extremely valuable for the students as they realise there’s a reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. It also contributes to problem selection. If we publish something really useful, I receive feedback fast from pharma and agrochemical companies!

A challenge is that we publish papers early to communicate what we are doing, but the first version is unlikely to have the chemistry’s full potential fleshed out. Chemist, whether in industry or academia, will try something once, or twice, and often not again if it doesn’t work. It can take time for potential to be realised. I was a grad student when Buchwald’s chemistry first appeared, and I recall a lot of people struggling with it initially. It took a quarter of a century to make it as useful as it is now. Few reactions are worth that kind of effort!

Where do you see chemical synthesis going in the next couple of decades? Will it still be able to pull in good students, or will we be taken over by AI and ever more complex technology?

AI is an important new development, but I doubt it will replace everything else. It will be one useful tool among many. So don’t worry about students not finding jobs because they will have been replaced with computers.

Companies still need and want good chemists, and I cannot see that will be any different in the future.”