David Berry is sitting in a midtown Manhattan coffee shop, taking a break from a carbon-trading conference across the street, when a news report on the wall-mounted television catches his eye. The CNN dispatch describes how scientists have shown, in animal experiments, that Viagra might be used to alleviate symptoms of jet lag.
“It’s interesting,” Berry says, chuckling, as his eyes wander back to the screen. “We were talking about a year ago of using Viagra to treat jet lag.” One side effect of Viagra widely reported in the medical literature has been the perception of blue light, he continues, and blue light has also been shown to reset circadian clocks in humans. “I like when I see these things actually come true,” he says.
It’s one thought that never went beyond a blue-sky conversation among his venture capital colleagues. But it reflects how easily ideas come to Berry, a Harvard-trained MD who earned his PhD through the Biological Engineering Division at MIT and for the past two years has been a principal in the venture capital firm Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, MA.
Since receiving his bachelor’s degree from MIT in 2000, Berry has helped develop a way to treat stroke, thought up a new approach to cancer therapy, and, most recently, created a system to genetically engineer microbes to produce biofuels. He has 21 patent applications pending, and his intellectual curiosity touches on therapeutic medicine, diagnostic devices, and now, most notably, alternative energy technologies. His innovations in energy form the conceptual basis of LS9, a California-based renewable-petroleum company that has received $5 million in venture funding from Flagship and Khosla Ventures in California (see “Better Biofuels,” July/August 2007).
Berry points out that a number of the pioneering biotech companies were thinking about energy and biofuels, specifically ethanol, in the 1970s. “What’s interesting,” he says, “is that, as a field, we’re making a full circle and going back to the things biotechs thought about way back then. But now we’re bringing new technological tools to make the same problems more tractable.”
On the first working day of each week, Flagship Ventures holds a group meeting to review investments and discuss new ideas. One day this May, David Berry was the youngest, and probably the most earnest, of about a dozen VCs gathered in Flagship’s seventh-floor conference room, with its grand view of sailboats plying the Charles River. The meeting ran a little long, and Berry apologized when he finally emerged. “We were talking about a potential new idea in drug delivery,” he explained. Although the details of that technology remained discreetly fuzzy, it was very clear that these are heady, palpably exciting conversations for him. “You’re discussing some of the hottest, most compelling new technologies around,” he says. “I’m having a blast.”
Berry took a seat at that conference table with no formal training in finance but a track record in technology. In graduate school, he began tinkering with a molecule that could pass through the blood-brain barrier and showed promise as a stroke treatment. The protein, an engineered version of fibroblast growth factor 2, produced functional improvement in a test animal modeling symptoms of stroke, and it brought out in Berry another quality conducive to innovation: restlessness. Berry realized that studying the protein could lead to a PhD far more quickly than most projects, and he seized the occasion. He got his PhD in 2005 (finishing his MD a year later), and the biotech company ViaCell briefly attempted to develop the molecule as a drug.