Dr. Richard Threlfall is a Product Manager for Wiley Science Solutions and works on products like ChemPlanner, which is a computer-aided synthesis design tool that can predict multiple routes to known and novel targets, and Wiley Spectra Lab, a large, multi-technique spectral database.
He talks to Louisa Bohn for ChemistryViews.org about a change of employment for chemists, what challenges he is facing in his new job and why he thinks ChemPlanner is a game-changing software.
What do you do in your current position?
My job is product manager. That’s a very vague definition. Most of the time people describe it as Mini-CEO of a product. What that means in reality is that at the start my job is to go out and talk to people, customers, and scientists and talk through their everyday workflow, what they do, what do they spend their time on, what do they wish they could spend less time on, what opportunities they wish they had. And then we design products around taking away those pain points. After that, it is a case of building a basic product, sometimes from scratch and sometimes from something that already exists and turning it into something new.
Please tell us something about your daily routine.
It’s quite different every day. There isn’t really a routine to it, I would say. For example for products that are new or launched, it is about making sure you use them as a customer would use them, making sure you know them inside out, making sure you are talking to people who give feedback. You are also running demonstrations for people that are interested in these new products, because in the case of something like ChemPlanner it is a new concept you introduce them to. Although the user interface is quite intuitive, the idea is not that intuitive. So you have to take them through and point out what this new thing is and why it might be useful for them. It is a case of keeping up with what status the product is at.
Also marketing and sales colleagues need technical support. The product team has the scientific background, but marketing and sales might need to know the basics as well. That is why I did a PowerPoint presentation explaining to sales people, who have little or no scientific background, what for example spectroscopy what Raman or NMR is. All that in five slides for a sales team to look through and say “Hm okay, I’ve got the idea”, because they are the ones facing the customers in the end.
How much is your job related to chemistry?
Very much. If I didn’t have a chemistry background it would be a very difficult job to do. As I mentioned earlier it is important to know, for example, ChemPlanner inside out. That wouldn’t be possible if I had no clue about chemistry.
What are problems you deal with in your job?
Problems occur when you have a new product that suddenly raises issues nobody has ever thought about before. You really find out how well your product works, when you let it loose on the customers. Quickly problems, which you perhaps didn’t think of in the test-phase or you perhaps didn’t imagine where even possible, might come up. Then it is a case of recreating what has happened, a bit like forensics on these products if you will, to find out how you can offer a better solution to your customers.
Can you explain what ChemPlanner is and how chemists react to this new product?
When you show customers this synthesis planning system, most people say “Yeah, I got SciFinder. So what else do I need?”. ChemPlanner is based on a totally different approach. If you are searching through SciFinder, you are using your own knowledge and you are searching what already exists. So if there are gaps in that knowledge, nobody knows everything, then there are gaps in your possibilities. The only way to access future knowledge is to use predictive software, which is what ChemPlanner is.
Normally I start off with an analogy to explain what ChemPlanner is. Why do you use comparison-websites for finding flights? Because they can process far more information than you can. They know far more things than you, simply because you don’t know every airport or airline that is, for example, between America and Asia. You could probably find out, if you have the time, but most people in an industrial environment don’t have time to do stuff like that. So that is what ChemPlanner does, it finds you the best route to your target molecule. Not only from the perspective of the fastest route, but also factors like reaction yield or lowest costs are included. ChemPlanner also has a lot of additional features, for example, there is a direct link to websites where you can buy your starting materials as well as a link to the literature source of a reaction.
Do you think that computer-aided synthesis planning is going to revolutionize lab work as we know it? And would you like to have used such a program?
Yes absolutely. A long time ago I used to do process chemistry at a pharmaceutical company. I can absolutely see how it would have saved a team of chemists a lot of time, and not just because of the amount of information it can make available for you.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Working on products like ChemPlanner, which do have the potential to really change the way people work and change it for the better. It is value for the customers. When you show this thing to people there is that moment where the lightbulb goes on and they realize “Wow, what we were doing was okay, but now we have this tool. How did we manage without this before?”. That is a very exciting moment.
Why did you decide to move from being an editor in chief to your job now?
It is part of your job as an Editor-in-Chief to make the process of submitting and publishing papers as easy as possible for your authors. As part of that, I was looking at improving workflows and looking where there are opportunities to do that, especially technological ways to do that. The amount of papers is increasing exponentially and if journals want to provide the same level of service as in the past, there has to be an application of technology to help them handle the sheer volume of stuff that comes through the editorial office. So I started to work on that, I started to look at apps and little programs that would make the editorial workflow easier. The authors wouldn’t actually see the mechanics of it, but they would see the benefits like reduced publication time. I found this work a lot of fun, so that’s when I decided to switch to technology development.
What advice would you give to chemists who are interested in a change of employment?
Never be put off from a change and never think it is too far away from what you are doing now. As a scientist, you are basically a problem solver that is a massive advantage in any position. Usually, a science degree gives you a lot of soft skills as well and you can transfer those. Don’t underestimate yourself.
Thank you for the interview.
Richard Threlfall studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool, UK, and earned his Ph.D. there. He worked as a medical writer before he went on to work as a post-doc at the University of Colorado Boulder, USA. After having worked as an Assistant Editor for Angewandte Chemie at Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, Germany, from 2012–2016, he was Editor of the Asian Journal of Chemistry. In Mai 2016, he became a Product Manager for Wiley Science Solutions.
All interviews of the ChemistryViews.org series “Chemists Talk About Their Jobs“