Jo shares how team diversity unlocks a world of new possibilities 

NAME:

Jo Ritter

ROLE:

Vice President, Research & Discovery, ZYM Exploration & Discovery

JOINED:

2018

A self-proclaimed science geek, Jo’s been passionate about materials chemistry his entire life. After studying synthetic organic and computational chemistry in graduate school, he spent twenty years in science leadership at DuPont within Central Research and Development, where he furthered his love of materials and brought scientists across different fields together.

Ever the chemist looking for new building blocks to play with, Jo’s long been interested in what biology can bring to innovation in new materials. Inspired by the potential of Zymergen’s bio-based materials platform and the vision of its founders, he threw himself into the startup world.

With a ton of experience in the field and a deep belief in the power of collaboration, Jo now builds and leads cross-functional teams that sit at the intersection of computation, chemistry, and biology and creates working environments designed to spark exploration and idea sharing.

“Having access to this new Lego set of biologically-derived molecules is really a dream come true for any creative scientist.”

To make materials all of us use every day–from ice cream flavoring to couch cushions–chemists have been looking at structures that come from crude oil for a long, long time. Biology opens up a whole new world of structures and has really not been explored to its full extent. There’s a lot more white space, and the likelihood of finding a chemical structure that is unique in this white space is so much higher than where people have looked a hundred times before.

“Combining computation, chemistry, materials science, and biology in a truly interactive environment is a whole new ball game.”

I quickly learned at the very beginning of my industrial career that these fields are so compartmentalized everywhere. You have companies that are world class in materials, biology, or data science, but not all three. Bringing them together like we do really accelerates the product development cycle.

The bottleneck in materials development these days is finding new structures and being able to quickly prototype them. Biology opens up a whole new world of possibilities for new structures. And if you can develop computational models that are close enough to experimental data, you drastically reduce the number of experiments to run in the lab. For me, that combination is a source of exponential opportunities.

Just the other day, I was in a meeting about a project to develop a fire-retardant plasticizer, and all of a sudden one of our scientists mentioned this molecule he’d made in graduate school. We looked at the structure, and incredibly we saw that this molecule could also form a substrate for a fertilizer–and even a dental adhesive–two wholly separate products. There’s no way that could’ve happened without all these interdisciplinary people–microbiologists, adhesives scientists, chemists–in one room. With a bunch of ideas dancing around, all of a sudden you’re able to make novel connections with all the different perspectives in the room.

“I am very inspired by the Zymergen vision of creating the 21st-century materials company.”

The first time I heard Zach Serber describe the Zymergen vision of creating the 21st-century materials company, I thought, “that’s a very audacious and visionary statement.” Most established companies these days are willing to take less and less risk in innovation. This negatively impacts the world, and in a substantial way. You have to have a certain type of audacity to want to do something new and be willing to spend money on it in order to actually achieve it. And that’s what I found in Zymergen.

It’s hard to do, but it’s a good goal to have. What gives me confidence that “the view is worth the climb” is the commitment that the founders have to their goals. It’s the commitment everyone here has.

“Anybody that has done this in the past will tell you, ‘you’re crazy.’”

We want to launch not just one but a whole line of new films in the next two years. As a company, we’re a newcomer to making high-performance films or any film or any product for that matter. It requires a lot of integration, a lot of technologies to master, and a lot of supply chains to master. There are so many steps and new technologies involved to get there.

To see the progress the team has made is amazing. To have gone from prototyping a molecule to selling rolls of film in just two years? I never would have thought this possible, and yet we are on track to get there. The same thing is true across our different programs in diverse industries. For a materials scientist like me, to see how rapidly we can progress on making a bio-derived insect repellent opens up a world of new possibilities for all sorts of products.

“I’m very proud of having had the opportunity to create an amazing research and technology team.”

When I started, it was three of us basically, and we hired over 35 people. The team is a great mix of super left- and right-brained people. We’re not all scientists or software engineers. There’s a high competency in very technical things spread across a lot of different categories, and I’m learning new things every day, which is such a draw for me and all of us here.

I really think core values are critical when you’re setting up a team. A trusting environment that’s safe, with respect for everyone, where no one is discouraged from speaking up. When you do that, people let their guard down and become a high-functioning team, where they work together towards a common goal rather than sort of cocooning themselves.

“The rewards, they come every day just by how people work together and enjoy themselves.”

I think we know that at Zymergen people are the foundation. When we empower our teams to the degree that they feel it’s upon them to drive projects forward, that’s when they’re the most productive and creative–and also when they have the most fun on the job. And when the projects move forward, then Zymergen will succeed, right?

WHAT DID YOU STUDY:
Synthetic, physical organic and computational chemistry at Heidelberg University followed by mechanistic organometallic chemistry during postdoctoral research at UC Berkeley.

SOMETHING THAT INSPIRED YOU RECENTLY:
My family of five adapting to and rebuilding a new life in the Bay Area, struggling through the challenges of a new environment and turning them into amazing opportunities. Many of us at Zymergen show that spirit, and that is what it takes to create this new bio-based products and materials company.

ONE THING MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU:
I love to play piano in private, improvising and composing in the wide musical space between classical and jazz, losing myself in a world that escapes words.

BEST ADVICE YOU’VE RECEIVED:
If you show kindness and a steady commitment toward a cause or goal, people will come and want to work together to create amazing opportunities.