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

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.