Retired KAUST SVP Jean M. J. Fréchet awarded prestigious King Faisal Prize in Chemistry

Retired KAUST SVP Jean M. J. Fréchet has been awarded the prestigious King Faisal Prize in Chemistry. File photo.

Professor Jean M. J. Fréchet, retired KAUST senior vice president for Research, Innovation & Economic Development, was awarded the King Faisal Prize in Chemistry on January 9. The prize, one of the most prestigious in the world, recognizes in the science category the world's highest caliber researchers who have enriched human knowledge. Fréchet is honored for his pioneering work and seminal contributions in the areas of convergent synthesis of dendrimers and their applications, chemically amplified photoresists and organic photovoltaics. Among the winners of the King Faisal Prize in science and medicine, 20 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Fréchet's scientific work has touched the lives of everyone living today. His contributions range from biotherapeutics, organic electronics, materials, catalysis, surface chemistry and monolithic microfluidics. He is the 10th highest cited chemist in the world, and his research and entrepreneurial work have contributed to industry and economic development worldwide.

A chemist and chemical engineer by training, Fréchet is the author of over 900 research publications with over 119,000 citations (10th among all chemists – Google Scholar) and holds more than 200 patents. He is the recipient of multiple international awards, including the prestigious Japan Prize in 2013. He is known for his innovative approach to research spanning academic and entrepreneurial activities in the areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Fréchet has worked in and made fundamental contributions to the broad fields of biotherapeutics, organic electronics, materials, catalysis, surface chemistry and separation science. In addition, he co-founded several startup ventures and worked with venture capital firms to fund a variety of science-based companies. 

One remarkable research breakthrough was Fréchet's design with Grant Willson of a chemically amplified photoresist based on a single photochemical event that is "amplified" along a polymer chain. This elegant solution, which was recognized by the Japan Prize in 2013, drove the revolution in the fabrication of ever-smaller microprocessors and memory chips that are ubiquitous in all consumer electronics today.

Fréchet also introduced the "convergent" methodology, which is described as an organic chemist's approach to synthesize dendrimers. This approach builds a macromolecule from the outside in, leading to unparalleled control over the molecule's growth, structure and functionality. Fréchet's dendrimers have been used in myriad applications ranging from catalytic nanoreactors to drug delivery systems. In a continuation of this work, he later developed carrier macromolecules based on the dendrimer design that can target specific organs before releasing their payload.

His other notable research achievements include the development of novel separation media in which the media flows directly through the pores of the functional polymer rather than around beads, allowing for exceedingly fast separations on a miniature scale.

Fréchet significantly contributed to making KAUST the science and engineering powerhouse that it is today—one that leads in research and innovation in Saudi Arabia and is rapidly rising in the world. During his tenure at KAUST, he expertly balanced the University's strategy mandate to compete globally while contributing nationally.

In 2010, Fréchet left his chaired position at the University of California, Berkeley, to become KAUST vice president for research. In his position at KAUST, he oversaw the University's interdisciplinary Research Centers and Core Labs to ensure that both researchers and staff members could conduct collaborative research in science and engineering at the highest standards. He played a key role in developing a conducive environment for interdisciplinary education and research that leverages the theme-focused projects in the University's Research Centers and the capabilities in the KAUSTacademic divisions' core disciplines.

In 2017, Fréchet was promoted to the position of KAUST senior vice president for Research, Innovation, and Economic Development to develop strategies, initiate programs and manage resources to bridge the gap between fundamental and goal-oriented research and entrepreneurship. By leading efforts to realize synergies arising from the University's unique structure, Fréchet forged strategies to place KAUST at the forefront of innovation and enterprise in its effort to become a globally renowned university that focuses on research excellence while contributing to the economic development of Saudi Arabia.

At KAUST, Fréchet was instrumental in creating an environment in which the number of publications produced by KAUST faculty surged from 400 per year in 2010 to more than 2,000 in 2016. His commitment to excellence helped to attract Saudi and international students and faculty members to study and conduct research at the University, and his influence as a prolific researcher energized KAUST faculty members to aspire to the highest standards.

Fréchet retired from KAUST in early January 2019. In wishing Fréchet farewell, KAUST President Tony Chan stated: "KAUST has benefited immeasurably under Jean's strong, clear-eyed and effective leadership. Jean has been tireless in his service to KAUST and has played a critical role in establishing KAUST's research excellence."

Upon receiving the news of Fréchet's newest accomplishment, President Chan said: "I am delighted that Jean's many and varied contributions to chemistry have been recognized with the prestigious King Faisal Prize for Science. This is great news for KAUST as we extend our reach across the world. We look forward to seeing Jean when he returns to Saudi Arabia to receive the Prize. He will always be part of the KAUST family."

Fréchet's commitment to Saudi Arabia shone in all that he accomplished at KAUST. He made it his mission to understand the needs and potential of Saudi Arabia and aligned KAUST research to address these needs. He was a staunch advocate for developing Saudi youth and empowering female scientists and academic leaders. Though retired, he remains active in the Kingdom.

Fréchet thought that KAUST should play a central role in the economic development of Saudi Arabia, and he drove the University's core research and strategy to meet these needs. He described KAUST as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to the Kingdom, and he believed the University could lead the way and inspire the imaginations of others.

Because of this, Fréchet drove efforts to partner with companies and universities in the country to advance the common goal of innovation and talent development and introduce new ideas and concepts that would accomplish these goals, such as promoting postdoctoral fellowships and emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary research, academics and engineering.

Fréchet understood the future of Saudi Arabia would be in the hands of today's Saudi youth, and he devoted himself to efforts that would develop and mobilize the next generation of young Saudi talent to lead change and progress in the Kingdom. By contributing thought leadership and strategic research counsel to KAUST's youth programs—and most notably to the Saudi Research Science Institute for high schoolers and the KAUST Gifted Student Program scholarship for Saudi undergraduates—Fréchet helped establish a scientific and knowledge legacy in the Kingdom.

Though retired, Fréchet remains active in the Kingdom. He is a current member of the NEOM Advisory Board and serves on the Saudi Aramco Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Center - Advanced Research Center (EXPEC-ARC) International Advisory Council.

"I have been fortunate over the years to work with gifted people from different backgrounds, including students, academic colleagues and many scientists and engineers from industry," Frechet commented. "Some drew from their experience and intimate knowledge of chemistry or technology and some had different perspectives, all of which fueled our joint creativity."