Brain Storm

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.

Photograph by China Daily/Reuters/Corbis

Photograph by China Daily/Reuters/Corbis

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.”