Interview | Prof. Peter H. Seeberger, Director of the Department of Biomolecular Systems at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam

Chemistry on brink of complete transformation

Prof. Peter Seeberger, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, is a renowned expert in the field of glycoscience. He is also a professor at the Freie Universität Berlin and an honorary professor at the University of Potsdam.  The chemist can look back on a long academic career that has taken him to some of the most prestigious institutions in his field. He has also been involved in the founding of many companies. We spoke to him about the success of start-ups and the progress of science.


1. Prof. Seeberger, you have spent many years abroad and have seen there that professors too can start up businesses. You yourself have also been involved in many spin-offs - including Ancora Pharmaceuticals, GlycoUniverse, Vaxxilon/now Idorsia, ArtemiFlow and Glyxera. Which of these do you regard as really successful?

In my view, a product is successful when it satisfies a need and sells well as a result. A company that can employ people on good terms and offer them a livelihood is successful. I think all our companies have achieved this. When measuring success, you also have to differentiate between the type of products and the objectives that the companies have. For example, we founded GlycoUniverse 10 years ago in Potsdam. It builds instruments for assembling oligosaccharides and produces tools that are needed for carbohydrate research. It is a small and profitable company. We founded Vaxxilon in Berlin in 2015 to develop vaccines that protect against hospital germs and raised 30 million euros in the first round of funding before the company was acquired by Idorsia in 2020. Idorsia continues the development of these vaccines in clinical trials. Both companies are successful in their own way - selling instruments is just easier than developing vaccines, which is a very long-term business.


2. You are currently in further start-up talks. Could you give us an insight into your plans?

There are always a number of ideas that are feasible and waiting to be implemented. But you can’t get around to do everything. I can currently name two projects: firstly, the company Agas, which deals with endometriosis. This is a particularly painful pelvic disease in women for which there is currently no cure and for which diagnosis takes seven to eleven years. Agas has developed a blood test at the Max Planck Institute to diagnose endometriosis quickly. From this, recommendations can be derived as to how the disease can best be treated. Agas is currently in the first phase of fundraising. The second is another large vaccine company that tackles hospital germs. It is currently estimated that by 2050, hospital germs will be responsible for more deaths worldwide than neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer combined. Even if things don't get that bad, this is still a very big problem that is difficult to tackle with antibiotics alone. That is why we are working with colleagues from the Charité to set up a company. We will start fundraising in the first quarter of this year.


3. With your experience as a scientist, what do you think will be possible in the future? Or put more simply: what is the next big thing?

I can only answer that with regard to chemistry. I have been involved in the Centre for the Transformation of Chemistry - CTC in Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt for a year now. Very general questions concerning chemistry are being asked there. The big issue we see is holistic change in chemistry itself. It starts with the change in primary materials; we need to get away from oil and gas. We also need to establish new processes that are more energy-efficient and sustainable. This means that we have to completely reorganise chemistry. Until now, data has been obtained through experiments in very complex processes. In the future, this will be streamlined through the interplay of automation and machine learning. This means that in the future chemists will probably use so-called chem-servers. These are machines that can optimise themselves without the intervention of experts and thus provide data that can be used with the help of machine learning to find interesting chemicals more quickly. Ultimately, in chemistry, as almost everywhere else, the driving force will be combining the subject with AI in the future.

4. You are also active in teaching, what do you think is good about the young generation of scientists, what can they even do even better than “we”?

I am sure that the next generation of scientists will do better or at least just as well as the current one. In my perception, the next generation that I see today has the advantage that most of them speak English far better than we did. There is also much greater mobility than in the past. We have many young scientists from other countries, and we benefit massively from this in Germany. At our institute alone, up to 75 percent of our researchers are non-German. I also notice that the new generation has a much greater affinity for the automation of processes and a much better basic understanding of and openness to data processing technology. In addition, young people have a strong interest in working in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, a development that will help us in the chemical industry, but also in the pharmaceutical sector. Irrespective of this, we are in an excellent position here in Berlin and the surrounding area when it comes to young talent. There are five universities and many research institutions. It's no problem at all for us to bring people from all over the world here because it's an attractive place to live and work in many respects.

Curriculum Vitae:

Peter Seeberger studeied chemistry at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Before graduating, he transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder as a Fulbright Scholar and obtained his PhD in biochemistry in 1995. During his postdoctoral research at the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York he had the opportunity to learn from the leading scientists in sugar chemistry. In 1998, he became an Assistant Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and after three years was appointed to a permanent position as Professor of Chemistry. During this time he also set up his first two companies in the US. In 2003, he moved as Professor of Organic Chemistry  to ETH Zurich. In 2009, he was appointed director of the “Biomolecular Systems” department at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam. He is working on two main fields there: firstly, the automated synthesis of sugars and secondly, the advancement of the idea of flow chemistry in which chemistry is practiced in a tube or pipe, a process that enables chemical reactions to be controlled better.


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