July 28, 2009

A Cagey Bet On Clean Tech

BURLINGAME, CALIF. -- David Berry, the young, MIT-trained co-founder of biofuel company LS9, is making another play at the crowded "clean-technology" market. But he's keeping mum about exactly how his futuristic new technology will work.

Berry's Joule Biotechnologies, based in Cambridge, Mass., and backed by his investment firm, Flagship Ventures, is officially launching Monday. Yet it's not entirely clear how the company aims to meet its lofty goals of creating a "path to energy independence" and producing ethanol without using any agricultural land, natural feedstocks or fresh water. (The availability of some of those resources has been a problem for other biofuel companies.)

Joule says it has developed a new process called "Helioculture," which captures sunlight in a solar converter. There, the light interacts with "highly engineered, photosynthetic organisms to catalyze the conversion" of sunlight and carbon-dioxide--a gas which Joule says it can, conveniently, take off the hands of traditional power plants. This all creates "usable transportation fuels and chemicals." Joule won't say what the organisms are, except that they're not algae. Some start-ups have been trying to eke biofuel out of algae, with limited success so far.

The firm won't even disclose how much venture capital it's raised, though Chief Executive Bill Sims allows that it's "well less than $50 million."

Sims says "plenty of capital" will be required to build out Joule's infrastructure. But the start-up could work out joint ventures with other companies, such as carbon-dioxide emitters, to help with cash and access to land. Joule can build out its solar structures on non-agricultural land, Sims notes, and even on places like building rooftops. Berry and Sims say the firm should be able to sell its fuel commercially by late 2011 or 2012 at a competitive price.

It all sounds almost too good to be true. And it may be, particularly as the credit crunch squeezes many capital-intensive, clean-tech firms and makes it harder for risky, scientifically ambitious start-ups like Joule to get off the ground.

But Berry is a big brain: He has a Ph.D. from MIT's Biological Engineering Division and also found time to earn a degree from Harvard Medical School. He co-founded LS9 in 2005 and helped it raise cash from Khosla Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, in addition to Flagship, where Berry is a partner.

He says Joule combines "the best of solar" with the "best of biology." In the best of investing environments, it could be a winner. But in today's choppy markets, Joule may have a harder slog--even if its technology truly is groundbreaking.

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