After finishing a Bachelor's degree in neuroscience at MIT in 2000 and reaching the thesis stage of his medical training at Harvard University, David Berry asked himself what most people would not ask themselves at this point: Why not throw on a Ph.D. thesis in biological engineering too?
Indeed, why not? Berry calls his combined degrees an "ad hoc M.D.-Ph.D." And despite the incredible focus and determination he needed to accomplish such a feat in six years, Berry is disarmingly relaxed and personable. He just likes to do things fast.
Traditional medical school training, with post-doctoral and residency requirements, would have prolonged the day when Berry started what he calls his first "real job." As his research interests gravitated from the life science space to the energy space, he realized that the Ph.D. research component of his degree would enable him to get into the heady atmosphere of scientific discovery sooner rather than later. He was fascinated with the idea of "developing things"—finding ways to serve humanity in the most positive ways possible, curing disease, solving energy problems. "Inputs and outputs," he calls it.
"I was looking for technologies that could have significant impact," Berry says, "and I didn't want it to take a long time."
Currently holding 21 patents, serving as a principal for the Boston-based Flagship Ventures, and acting as CEO for several biotech companies, Berry has put his time to good use. Last year, he was named Innovator of the Year by MIT Technology Review for his efforts to create a new source of petroleum by altering the metabolic machinery of microorganisms. With the price of crude oil over $130 a barrel (and counting) there has been a major resurgence of interest in these "designer biofuels" that were first discussed seriously in the 1970s during the nation's last major fuel crisis.
The key to designer biofuels has been to find a cellulose feedstock, such as corn or sugar, which can be produced in significant and usable quantities. But market forces have their effect: the cost of corn doubled between 2005 and 2006 after ethanol was touted as the new homegrown alternative to oil. Berry recognized the need to identify a microorganism with a more stable price point.
His venture company, LS9 is currently experimenting with the possibility of turning e. coli into petroleum. "I'm interested in having a technology that is robust enough that it can excite the minds of people, and be a real sustainable company," Berry says. "I'm looking for companies that can really change the way people think in certain areas." Using e. coli to solve the world's fuel problems will most definitely change the way people think.
To fully commercialize any innovative technology, Berry keeps in mind the interests of the various stakeholders around the table at Flagship Ventures. "I'm a scientist first, a business person second," he says. "But most of the conversations I have on a day to day basis are with entrepreneurs. I have to get in touch with the technology while seeing things from their standpoint. I want to be on the same side of the table as them."
Looking for the right technologies sometimes means building a company from scratch. In these cases, traditional diligence measures that assess the viability of a project and the quality of its intellectual property (i.e., people) do not necessarily apply. "We have to spell out what an opportunity is," Berry says. "Why do we care about it? It's one thing to come up with an idea. It's another thing to go after it. The question is, can you go the whole nine yards with it? Can you go ten?"
For Berry, going the distance means starting the day with a "prepared mind." He arrives at his office in Cambridge every morning at 7 a.m. after working out and reading a selection of newspapers and the most current science periodicals. He is even ready to be a little aggressive, knowing that he will be interacting for the next several hours with some of the world's leading scientists. MIT Technology Review recently described him as "self-confident," a term to which he mildly objects.
"I never say that about myself, but to be innovative, you have to have a willingness to be wrong, and that is often perceived as self-confidence. You're not going to have really big solutions to things unless you're taking a risk."
Berry attributes his inclination to see beyond the ordinary to the influence of Dr. Bob Langer, his thesis advisor at MIT who encouraged him to push the envelope in the bio-medical sphere. "He taught me the concept of think big. If you want to go after a problem, go after a big one."
Finding a viable alternative energy source to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and shrink the carbon footprint of the world—that's a big one.