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

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.