Andrew Perlman has lived the Mark Zuckerberg version of the American Dream. While other kids in his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts pinned posters of athletes or rock stars on their bedroom walls, Perlman idolized tech giants Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. He was a natural born entrepreneur — curious, driven and highly intelligent. When Perlman was just twelve years old, he turned his parents’ kitchen into an ethanol still and attempted to sell the fuel to his neighbors. Fifteen years later, he sold his first company for two hundred million dollars. By thirty, Perlman had successfully launched five start-ups across multiple fields. Now on the eve of his fortieth birthday, this longtime seasonal resident is zeroing in on solving global problems. Andrew Perlman is out to change the world.
“I was always interested in the intersection of science and technology and the ability to actually turn that into something that changes people’s lives,” Perlman says today outside of the Bean on Nantucket. The thirty-nine-year-old looks cool in a Keanu Reeves kind of way, with slicked back hair and an understated style. He’s fast-talking and personable. While these days Perlman can be found dining with Richard Branson or hunting with T. Boone Pickens, he seems utterly unaffected by his success. “There’s this great quote,” he says, “‘Successful entrepreneurship is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent desperation.’ That was definitely true for me.”
After spending his teens romping through the halls of the engineering department at UMass, hoping to stumble upon new technologies that he could turn into businesses, Perlman enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis. During his sophomore year, he discovered a technology being developed at the university that he thought could make for a profitable company. So he wrote up a business plan, put a team together, and attracted some investors. When the university refused to license the technology to him because he was a student, Perlman dropped out.
“My parents weren’t too happy about it,” he says. “My mom doesn’t like me to say this, but basically they financially cut me off.” After failing to get the technology from the university, desperation forced Perlman to take a job as a telemarketer. “I was calling people up at dinnertime, trying to get them to switch to Sprint from AT&T, getting hung up on by everybody. It was literally the worst job in the history of the world.” And that’s when Perlman identified the first big opportunity that would launch his career as a serial entrepreneur.
After listening to companies complain about the high cost of international calling, Perlman set out to find a cheaper way. This ultimately led him to patent the first technology to send voice over the Internet. A year later, Perlman’s Cignal Global Communications was in twenty-five countries, netting six million dollars a year in revenue. Perlman had even convinced the CEO of Sprint International to leave Sprint and lead his fledgling company. All this around the time he could legally order his first beer.
Since selling Cignal in 2000, Perlman has been on a roll, starting innovative companies across several fields. “I think it comes down to one thing: finding pain points where someone is so desperate for a solution that they’ll do whatever it takes, or pay whatever it takes,” he says. “I try to find pain points in markets of ten billion dollars or more and then find a technical solution. There are very few problems that you can’t find a solution to. I have yet to find one.” With the help of scientists, Perlman’s companies have developed high-speed memory chips for smart phones, created cutting-edge anti-obesity drugs, desalinated water, revolutionized clean energy, and even produced drugs that essentially extend life spans. A lifelong lover of Nantucket, Perlman named several of his companies after places on the island. There’s the Coatue Corporation, Coskata, Inc., Alta Rock Energy. “Cisco was already taken,” Perlman laughs.
The crown jewel of his empire, perhaps, is GreatPoint Energy, which is dedicated to converting coal into cleaner-burning natural gas. “Whether you’re talking about global warming or acid rain or smog or mercury build-up in fish or asthma rates, the leading cause is burning coal,” he says. “Burning coal is a terrible thing for the environment, and whether you can burn it cleanly or not, it’s not burned cleanly enough. It just isn’t being done well.” Perlman and his partner found a scientist in the Midwest who’d developed a solution in the seventies that could turn “the dirtiest fuel in the world to the cleanest commercial fuel in the world.” After years of refining the technology and raising hundreds of millions of dollars, GreatPoint Energy is breaking ground this September on a plant in a place that needs clean energy the most—China.
“It’s almost indescribable how bad the environment is in China,” Perlman says. “Five out of seven days a week you couldn’t see that house across the street. It’s so disgusting, it’s beyond imagination, and it’s all from burning coal. Thirty percent of the pollution in California comes from China. It’s also now the leading polluter, and the leading cause of global warming. So we’ve been heavily focused on trying to con- vert China from coal to natural gas.” If GreatPoint’s first plant proves effective in China, Perlman could dramatically impact the fight against global warming and pollution.
Beyond GreatPoint Energy, Perlman has several other companies in the works, one of which he’s testing out right here on Nantucket. He believes modular construction is the future of building, so he’s working with Smartbuild Modular of Nantucket to build his own home off of Cliff Road. “In China, there’s a company constructing the tallest building in the world and they’re doing it all modular. They’re going to build it in less than a year,” he says. “So I’m convinced that modular construction is the future.” As for Andrew Perlman’s own future, there’s always another company on his horizon, another opportunity for him to change the world.