Ton Vries: The man behind the award 

Ton’s days start with a 20 km bike ride from his farm in Drenthe to Symeres Groningen (formerly Syncom), a steady routine that contrasts with his ever-changing, hectic agenda. Ton is a person of simple habits, long-lasting friendships, and a photographic memory for molecular structures. And above all, Ton is a true believer in the power of chemistry and the beauty of molecules.

Although he has been interested in chemistry since high school, Ton’s career path could have taken a different turn in 1989. Due to the sudden death of his parents, he had to stop his PhD research and take care of the family business. “This period gave me a very valuable life lesson. For the first time, at 25 years old, I felt I was on my own. I needed to make things happen. This feeling has never abandoned me since and motivated me during my time as CEO,” remembers Ton. Although not formally a student, he kept in touch with the Department of Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen and visited them regularly. In 1991, Prof. Hans Wijnberg, one of the founders of Syncom, convinced Ton to join the company and encouraged him to work on his PhD. Over the years, Prof. Wijnberg became a mentor to him, although not in the most traditional kind of way. Ton has fond memories of the time they spent together: “Prof. Wijnberg was a fascinating man and a real character! He liked to give students absolute freedom, and that can be quite hard sometimes. I felt immediately a strong connection with him, both professionally and personally.” Soon after receiving his PhD degree in 1996, Ton started to join Prof. Wijnberg on business trips and finally took over his position as CEO in 2000.

Ton has seen the company grow from a handful of people to more than a hundred employees, and he has had to deal with some difficult times, such as the 2008 economic crisis. “I always felt an immense responsibility towards our employees. Part of my job was to secure contracts with clients, so that everyone could keep their jobs, and that can be a lot of pressure. I never experienced it as stressful though,” says Ton. “I am a firm believer that if you do a good job, things will fall into place at the end. During rough times, I focused on my daily activities and tried to perform them at the highest level. Concentrate on the work and do not worry about the future – this is the advice I would give to anyone facing a challenging situation.”

In parallel with his role as CEO, Ton has been extremely active in initiatives aimed to foster innovation in the northern Netherlands. With collaboration engraved in his DNA, he understands better than anybody that you cannot play a symphony alone. For Ton, creating an environment to support innovative companies is a true life goal and a way to create sustainable growth in the region. How can you build such an ecosystem? “It is all about your network. But there is a common misconception: Networking is not having a drink at an event; networking is helping people. Listening to them, helping them achieve their goals. It takes time and effort, but it always pays off.”

In 2020, Ton decided to step down as Managing Director and take the position of Head of Innovation and Technology at Symeres, a role that gives him more freedom to explore his vision of chemical innovation. With a real entrepreneurial spirit, he sees in every problem an opportunity. “The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating, but it has also shown society how important it is to have resources ready to face future epidemics. From novel treatments, or development of vaccines to new diagnostic tools, all the required technologies rely heavily on chemistry. Now is also the time to rethink how we want to organize the production of medicines and look for smarter, more sustainable processes. There are so many ways that we organic chemists can have a positive impact on the future.” And, whatever the future looks like, Ton is ready to take on the challenge.

By Elena Herrero Gomez

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