David Berry is the most brilliant thinker you’ve never heard of. Starting in 2012 he’s going to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels using little more than algae. (Okay, it’s technically cyanobacteria, but you know what we mean.) He might have done it sooner, but he’s also working on curing cancer and eradicating global hunger.
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.
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.
As I peer in at the 2-foot-by-4-foot tank in Joule’s lab, the specimens bubbling up before me actually bear little resemblance to their original selves. Joule has cut, pasted, stretched, and stuffed them into unnaturally sleek eating machines. They cannot survive long outside of this reactor, which sustains them and maximizes their performance. They cycle through the broth at a technologically controlled pace, snatching up photons and CO2 molecules and churning them into pure fuel at unprecedented rates. They keep next to nothing for themselves — storing no fat for hard times, and wasting nothing on growth. Joule has ripped out every nonessential function these cells once possessed, turning them into the photosynthetic equivalent of a racecar: nothing but engine. The really amazing thing is that this unit I’m looking at is pretty much the entire system. And there lies the true genius of Berry’s method: Whereas others in the industry are forced to first grow algae, then get it out of the water, then crush or squeeze it to remove the oil and finally convert that oil to usable fuel, Joule’s organisms simply whip the fuel right out of their bodies as soon as they produce it, with no conversions required. And the thinking goes that as long as Joule can perfect one unit, it can make a million more just like it. The plan is for entire fields, rolling acres of green as far as the eye can see. A true diesel farm.
In theory, I’m told, the entire system — from cyanobacteria to bioreactor — can produce more fuel more quickly than anything else in this amount of space. In theory, the numbers say, Joule could meet U.S. oil requirements, all 6.9 billion barrels per year of it, using no more land than is already devoted to growing corn in Nebraska and Iowa — and at roughly a third of the current cost of oil.
But like everyone else, I haven’t seen the math that proves any of this. Nor do I know exactly how the algae have been engineered, what micronutrients they require, how much money went into creating them, or what precise species of cyanobacteria Joule uses. Actually, until recently, nobody knew that they even were cyanobacteria. So tightly did Joule keep its process under wraps that at times it approached the point of absurdity: “The organism is an organism” was all a company official would say last spring of this miracle algae.
When I ask Berry about all the secrecy, he responds, “If you really believe you can change the world, frankly, you’re going to say almost nothing at all. And we’re building something we think has the potential to change the world.”
I want to believe him. Really, I do. Because we need an energy solution so badly right now. Every day, this country alone burns through 19.4 million barrels of oil; China goes through 8 million barrels a day and is closing the gap with us very, very fast. In a century and a half, we’ve managed to use up more than a trillion barrels of oil — about the same amount of proven reserves we have left. Now there are five times as many people on the planet as there were when we started using oil, and we’re splashing through what remains with our factories, ships, planes, and 900 million–plus passenger cars. What remains won’t last much longer. Which is why we’ve heard so much in the recent past about all those supposed biofuel breakthroughs. Like the cure for cancer, the solution is always right around the next corner. We’ve watched the rise and fall of corn and soy, then grass and wood chips, trash, coffee grounds, banana peels. For more than 50 years now we’ve been trying, and so far nobody’s come up with a genuine alternative to oil — not sunlight, not wind, not nuclear. Not yet, anyway.
Berry founded Joule in 2007 with Noubar Afeyan, the CEO of Flagship Ventures, the Cambridge venture capital company where Berry also works. That summer, they began reaching into Boston’s deep biotech pool for brains. They tapped George Church at Harvard and Daniel Wang from MIT, the respective fathers of genomics and biotechnology. Then came Jim Collins at BU, Ed DeLong at MIT, Chaitan Khosla at Stanford, and others, all leaders — giants, even — in their fields. Still, for its first two and a half years, Joule operated entirely in the shadows. There were no press releases, no website. Few outside the company even knew it existed. Finally, in July 2009, Joule decided to emerge from hiding, issuing a press release with the staggering announcement that it had developed a breakthrough technology that would transform sunlight and carbon dioxide straight into 20,000 or more gallons of ethanol or diesel per acre per year. The concept was cheap, easy to deploy, and would be ready to go commercial within two years.
Joule’s message was revolutionary, but its timing was awful. While Berry and his team had been puzzling over biological variables and solar reactors, an entire industry had sprung up around them almost overnight. Algae fuel was suddenly red hot. Everybody wanted in. Startups appeared by the dozen, working in feverish secrecy to develop their own answer to the world’s energy woes. By the time of Joule’s announcement, what’s been dubbed the “summer of algae” was already under way. Each day seemed to bring another grand declaration from somebody else promising the second coming of oil.
The whole thing felt like a kind of brave new world, but it wasn’t actually the country’s first attempt at these kinds of fuels. Reeling from the OPEC crisis in the mid-’70s, and attracted to algae’s high oil content and simple growing requirements — no need for clean water or arable land — the government led an effort to develop algal-based alternatives. That was the Aquatic Species Program (ASP), which ran from 1978 to 1996 and sent countless scientists out across the country in search of suitable strains of algae. The program got as far as a pilot plant in Roswell, New Mexico, but it never found a way to make algae work financially. Eventually oil prices dropped, and the program died from under-funding and lack of interest.
After the ASP, algae programs lay largely dormant for the better part of a decade, until rising oil prices, growing climate concerns, and advances in biotechnology sparked a renewed interest. Suddenly, algae was the word of the day. The bloom included businesses such as Sapphire Energy, Valcent, PetroSun, BioProcess, LiveFuels, OriginOil, Solix, Heliae, Aurora, Phycal, Algenol, and dozens of others. Algae grew in open ponds, closed ponds, fermentation vats, plastic bags suspended in the air, stacked reactors, and vast tanks illuminated with fiber optics. Some strains produced plant oil and biodiesel, some made ethanol, and a very small handful (including Joule’s) even made pure diesel. Money poured in, thanks to lab triumphs, pilot plants, and promises for tens of thousands — even millions — of gallons of fuel per acre. The government resurrected the ASP, and oil giants entered the fray. Even Craig Venter, the famed billionaire who makes a point to be first to every major biotech milestone, announced his intention to join the party. “We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy,” he declared in 2008. A race was under way, and Berry’s company — which once figured it had the field to itself — was instead in the middle of a pack.
But then, just as suddenly, everything slowed down. In January 2010 a study in Environmental Science & Technology declared that algae fuel was nowhere near as eco-friendly as it appeared. A few months later, the Department of Energy published a research road map detailing a grim set of biofuel obstacles that still had to be overcome. Then UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute released the report “A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel Production,” which predicted that the industry would need at least another decade to determine whether these fuels were viable.
Soon, even the most promising algae contenders were reevaluating their game plans. Solazyme, a company that grows its algae in the dark and feeds them sugar, began emphasizing the soaps, cosmetics, and energy drinks it could make in addition to fuel. Aurora Biofuels changed its name to Aurora Algae and similarly refocused on food.
It turns out that it’s difficult to squeeze oil out of algae on a mass scale. It’s also not easy to convert a system that makes a hundred thousand gallons of fuel into one that makes a billion gallons. And it’s next to impossible to coax these organisms to produce more than a few thousand gallons of oil per acre each year. Under absolutely perfect conditions, you might expect 13,000 or so gallons, and it’s probably more realistic to expect 2,000 to 3,000 gallons.
So when Joule popped up out of nowhere, promising to produce 20,000 gallons or more per year, the news was met with skepticism. “Joule Biotechnologies announces new biofuel jargon, scant details,” Scientific American jabbed. A Wall Street Journal blog took issue with Joule’s two-years-to-market claim: “That’s the same kind of ambitious timeline that has marked an awful lot of next-generation biofuel projects in recent years — projects that almost uniformly have failed to live up [to] their hype.” And NASA algae scientist Aaron Wolf Baum blogged that Joule’s promises “should be a red flag for investors.”
One night in December, Berry and I took the Green Line up Beacon Street in Brookline. Stepping out into the bitter cold, we hastily covered the six blocks to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Inside, Berry found his wife, Yelena Dudochkin, a tiny blond opera singer who was seated quietly in a dim antechamber as she prepared for her performance that night. She was alone but for a silent dark-haired woman wearing an enormous tartan cape.
Berry knelt beside his wife.
“I forgot my eye shadows,” she told him.
“Do you want me to go get them?”
“No…I don’t even know where they are.”
“You always forget something,” he said with a smile. “It wouldn’t be right if you didn’t.”
“Last time,” she said, looking at me, “we were singing in Cambridge, and I forgot one of my props. He drove all the way back to Brookline for it before the show.”
Across the room, the dark-haired woman — the evening’s mezzo-soprano — rose and began to pace, humming the opening bars of Carmen’s “Habanera.”
Fretting about her warmup routine, Dudochkin said, “I think I oversang.”
“You didn’t,” Berry assured her. “I can hear it in your voice when you oversing.” He rubbed her knee. “You have a tired sound in your throat when you sing too much; you don’t have that now.”
Berry and Dudochkin met in 2007 on a blind date set up by a mutual friend.
She was in the midst of transitioning from a successful Wall Street career to opera, while he was still a month away from founding Joule.
Dudochkin quickly came to see that whether Berry is trying to solve the world’s most intractable problems or simply repairing his home air conditioner and reorganizing his wife’s closet, his motivation is always the same: It’s his brain versus the obstacle at hand, and the real challenge is to see if he can work out a solution. “Every time he approaches anything and he sees a problem in it, he’ll say, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to do it this way?’” Dudochkin tells me. “And that’s just so inherent to what he does with everything.”
Berry was born and raised in Mount Kisco, New York, a small town of about 10,000. His parents, a labor lawyer and a school psychologist turned modern-art dealer, encouraged him to read, mostly for their own peace. “I would ask them questions, like, ‘Why does the world turn?’” Berry says. “Then I’d tell them, ‘Your answer doesn’t make sense to me.’ That’s when they started giving me books.”
He attended MIT, declaring a neuroscience major, but eventually fell hard for bioengineering. He decided to be a surgeon, or possibly a research professor, so he tried both, earning a Ph.D. at MIT in 2005 and an M.D. at Harvard Medical School in 2006. He published 11 peer-reviewed papers covering everything from inflammatory bowel disease to stroke therapeutics — none of which had much to do with his dissertation, but which earned him the coveted Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2005.
Still, he became increasingly disillusioned with both research and medicine. So despite several lucrative offers, including a Harvard professorship, Berry decided against following either path. What he really wanted was something with speed, impact, and creativity. In the summer of 2005, a guy named Samir Kaul, from Flagship Ventures, called. Kaul had heard about Berry through the MIT grapevine and wanted to pick his brain about an idea. Impressed with Berry’s thinking, Kaul persuaded Flagship CEO Noubar Afeyan to meet with Berry. That November Berry, who was 27 and had no real business or investment experience, reported to Flagship for his first day as a venture capitalist.
That was the same year Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf of Mexico and drove oil prices above $70 a barrel. It was the hottest year then on record, and the world would soon hit its halfway mark on oil reserves. Corn ethanol and soy biodiesel were getting millions in investment dollars and government subsidies, but it was already clear that those fuels could never account for more than a tiny fraction of the nation’s massive oil consumption. Flagship, which had only just begun to seriously consider investing in renewable energy, threw its new hotshot into the mix and told him to figure out where the investment opportunities lay.
Berry was put to work, apprentice-style, under Kaul, who at the time was working closely with Afeyan to develop the fledging company LS9, which had grand ambitions of spinning oil from E. coli. But a couple of months after Berry signed on, Kaul left for a rival firm. So Berry took Kaul’s place beside Afeyan and the other LS9 collaborators, penning patents and driving the company forward to its greatest breakthrough, the holy grail of biofuel research: discovering the natural pathways through which photosynthetic organisms can produce pure diesel. The work earned him a spot on Technology Review’s “Top Innovators Under 35” list in 2007.
“David was really, I’d say, the first who could conceive of a company and iterate it and iterate and iterate,” Afeyan says. “It was a very different sort of collaboration with him.” And it was this collaboration that led to Joule.
Berry has also cofounded three other companies, each more radical than the one that came before it. The first, Theracrine, is working to address malignant tumors and to prevent them from becoming metastatic. The details Berry is willing to reveal are characteristically hazy. Right now, Theracrine is where Joule started out: no website, no press release. Even newer is Essentient, Berry’s nutrition company, which doesn’t even have an actual product yet, just ideas for producing nutrients on demand, independent of food, using almost nothing but sunlight, CO2, and water. Berry signed the lease for lab space just a few months ago, but he’s already received an invitation from the prime minister of Ethiopia to build the first full-scale facility in his country. The third company, which doesn’t have a name yet, is built around what Berry calls “the single most successful therapeutic that’s never been commercialized.” He swears it’s going to revolutionize treatment for the common, often fatal intestinal infection called C. diff.
So why does he keep targeting issues that are already littered with failed efforts, wasted money, and cynicism? “We’ve been treating cancer for 50-some years and there’s been some effect, but frankly, since Nixon’s war on cancer began we really haven’t had much of a change,” Berry says. “So it’s easy to ask, ‘Might our assumptions of the biology of cancer be not quite right?’ The harder question to ask is, ‘What else might be right?’ If I say, ‘Genetic mutation is not the fundamental thing that really kills people from cancer,’ most people’s response to that is, ‘Well that’s not what I’m taught, so how can it be true?’” He paused. “I really just like to find better ways to do things.”
And that, in the most basic sense, is why there is a Joule Unlimited. It’s a better way to make fuel. The best way, as far as Berry is concerned.
Last spring, less than a year after its public debut, Joule broke ground on a small pilot plant in Leander, Texas. There, 72 solar-panel tanks sit on the ground, each one about 4 feet by 8 feet, the whole thing laid out on just a fifth of an acre or so. It’s an outdoor laboratory that puts the controlled-environment results to the real-world test — that critical first step between the lab and the market.
The company has been running ethanol in the space for the past few months, and, according to Berry, so far, so good. (As usual, he won’t get into details.) The plant is now preparing to begin its diesel runs. Meanwhile, in the lab, Joule claims to already be pushing the supposed limits of ethanol production rates, hitting 10,000 gallons per acre earlier this year. Of course, they’ve yet to release the biological evidence to back that up.
Since 2009, the company has refined its original predictions of a generic 20,000 gallons per acre each year to a more specific 25,000 gallons of ethanol and 15,000 gallons of diesel. The plan is still to hit commercial scale by 2012, selling quantities of diesel to select clients like the blenders who create mixed fuels (such as gasoline) or to the transportation industry. From there, the possibilities are endless. “We’re going to be the 800-pound gorilla,” says Dan Robertson, Joule’s head of biological sciences. “The concept is that we’re going to be the fuel company that displaces the petroleum-derived fuel industry.”
Perhaps, but some outside Joule remain skeptical. “It’s an encouraging sign,” Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council, says of Joule’s initial successes. “But the key now is to produce at a competitive cost.” Joule has entered the “valley of death,” he warns — that toughest of all passages from the pilot stage to commercial. “There are companies that make it through that,” Coleman says. “Joule could make it through. But they need to make it to the next level.”
It’s true that Joule has yet to power cars or planes or Navy vessels, as competitors such as Sapphire and Solazyme have done with their fuels. Though it’s easy to dismiss those achievements as flashy gimmicks, the fact remains that they’ve done it and Joule has not. Nor has the company announced any deals with oil giants, like the $300 million pact Craig Venter struck with ExxonMobil.
Then again, where it counts the most, Joule appears to have positioned itself to be front and center in the biofuel race. It remains the only company so far to have achieved the continuous secretion of pure diesel — that is, getting its organisms to constantly spit out engine-ready molecules, with no need to refine. A handful of other companies are working on similar strategies, but so far, publicly at least, no one else is there.
Berry says these breakthroughs are Joule’s greatest advantages, a major reason he and his partners can hit their high production goals. It allows them to avoid the most costly issues in the game: squeezing the oil from the organisms; dealing with the dried-up mass of leftover greenery; and converting the oils into a usable fuel. But he doesn’t seem overly concerned with what analysts or anyone else thinks. In his mind, he’s solved it. He has no doubts. He’s certain that he and his team have thought through every obstacle. They’ve studied and learned from the failures of their predecessors. He’s seen the figures that prove it, he tells me — hell, he’s crunched half of them himself.
“I’m fine with everyone saying this can’t be done,” he says. “The Wright brothers were told they couldn’t get something to fly. No one ever believes that things can happen until they happen.”