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

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.