Brain Storm: How David Berry is Going to Solve the Energy Crisis with Pond Scum

IT LOOKS LIKE SOME COMBINATION of a solar panel, an aquarium, and a child’s Erector set. Which means it’s not exactly how you’d envision a piece of technology that is going to change the world. But that’s precisely what the people behind the small Kendall Square startup that produced this contraption keep telling me they’re going to do. So standing in a windowless lab located in that singularly unlovely corner of Cambridge called Life Science Square, I pull off my smudged safety goggles and lean in for a better look.

[sidebar]Beneath a furiously blazing sunlamp, a flat plastic tank is lying at a tilt, propped up by a system of metal rods. The tank is grooved with channels through which a thin green liquid is fizzing riotously upstream. This pale, watery fluid, more appletini in appearance than wheatgrass juice, is a one percent solution of cyanobacteria. (The stuff is not technically algae, but often gets called it. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the terms interchangeably throughout this story.) It’s pond scum, actually: photosynthetic bacteria from a phylum so diverse that specimens can be found in every corner of the world, from glaciers to dustbins. And even if we don’t know it, nearly all of us have ingested it at some point or other, whether in a splash of pond water during a swim or in a spirulina-laced smoothie.

So what is something this commonplace doing at the heart of a company with a spectacularly aggressive business plan? Joule Unlimited and its 33-year-old wunderkind founder, David Berry, see it as the solution to the global oil crisis. Berry and his team have figured out how to grow algae that are little diesel-making machines, designed to do nothing in life except ingest sunlight and CO2, drink water, and crap pure, clean fuel. And if Berry’s done his math right, these bacteria are the secret to a petroleum-free future. It’s only a matter of time, he says, until they eliminate the need for oil pulled from the ground. Joule Unlimited is not going to reduce our reliance on oil. It’s going to wipe it out.

And Joule, by the way, is just one of Berry’s planet-altering missions. Depending on the business card he happens to hand you on any given day, Berry is either a partner at a Cambridge venture capital firm or the founder of one of three revolutionary companies he’s created with the intention of quite literally changing the world. There’s his radical nutrition company, which is going to solve global hunger. Then there’s the business he started with the express purpose of curing cancer. And finally, there’s Joule.

So, yes, Berry likes to tackle more than one project at once. Of course, that’s quite a bit he’s taken on, even for someone of his prodigious talent and capacity for work. Then again, in a city overflowing with brilliant thinkers, David Berry — despite a profile so low many people around town have never heard of him — has one of the biggest and most important brains of all. Have others before him been unable to cure cancer? Are people still going hungry? Have we been disappointed by promise after broken promise of a beautiful biofuel future? Perhaps. But none of those failures had the benefit of David Berry’s mind.

“David’s immensely talented,” says Jim Collins, one of the early founders of synthetic biology. Ed DeLong, a pioneer in the field of metagenomics, says Berry thinks “very quickly and very deeply about a lot of different things, from logistics in infrastructure to the economic model to the engineering.” And according to Daniel Wang, who has been called the father of modern biotechnology, Berry “doesn’t like to get out there and say what I just told you — that Joule is the next best thing coming. He’s not that kind. But does he like to win? Ohhhh, yeah.”

And right now, as I watch the green liquid work its way through the tank’s channels, winning is defined in terms of Joule’s ability to get to market with a superalgae that can secrete just about any kind of fuel you want: diesel, ethanol, whatever.

It’s an almost laughably ambitious goal. When he’s not curing cancer and global hunger, Berry is going to solve a problem — our dependence on fossil fuels — that has vexed this country from an economic, strategic, and security standpoint for the past half-century. Doubt him? “When you’re doing something that everyone tells you can’t be done and won’t work,” Berry says, “well, that’s why we have pigs flying around our office.” And it’s true — they do. In fact, that happens to be the company’s unofficial mascot.