Podesta, Putin, Trump, Gingrich, and Joule: WikiLeaks and the inside true story

October 25, 2016 |

bd-ts-102616-joule-smIf you’ve been following the Sunday news programs in the past week, or breathless reporting in the Wall Street Journal (“John Podesta and the Russians” ) or Breitbart over the past few months, you’ll find that Clinton campaign chief John Podesta has come under fire for his ties to Joule Unlimited.

Let’s look at the charges and the case.

The allegations

It all goes back to documents that appeared in recent months in WikiLeaks, but recently the story has become a circus.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on the ABC network news program This Week in Washington that Podesta “was on a Russian company advisory board that was apparently funded by Putin.”

Meanwhile, Breitbart reported that “Podesta’s membership on the board of directors of Joule Unlimited was first revealed in research from Breitbart News Senior Editor-at-Large and Government Accountability Institute (GAI) President Peter Schweizer.”

The Trump campaign weighed in last week. Senior Communications Advisor Jason Miller said that “The disclosure that Clinton Chair John Podesta transferred his shares in Putin-backed Joule Unlimited to an anonymous holding company when he joined the Obama Administration is extremely concerning, because the holding company is completely anonymous, we do not know whether or not he still has deep financial ties to Vladimir Putin and his regime. As such, Mr. Podesta needs to either reveal who is behind the holding company or he must resign from the Clinton campaign immediately.”

Beyond the hype, here’s the Real Deal

Let’s set the record straight.

1.  Did Podesta have a secret connection with Joule? 

Uh, nothing secret about it. And, no, the connection between Podesta and Joule was not revealed by Breitbart, reporting from deep inside the WikiLeaks vault. It was revealed by Joule in 2011 in a press release, and covered at that time by The Digest. here.

2. Was Podesta a Joule investor?

Podesta received share options as a director of the company, but other than the exercise of the options did not put cash into the company.

3. How much are the shares worth?

It’s a private company with no publicly-revealed per-share valuations – these generally come out during the run-up to an IPO. Let’s use a company like Gevo as a proxy — they also make advanced biofuels using advanced fermentation, and are publicly traded. Gevo shares trade at $0.50 – so think of the holding as having a value of something like $40,000. If Joule ever did an IPO and valued at say $10/share, they could be worth considerably more. But the value would measured in the thousands, not the millions,

4. Why would Podesta transfer shares in 2013 to his daughter?

In late 2013, Podesta divested his shares, and resigned as a Joule director, prior to returning to the White House as an Obama advisor. According to news reports, he recused himself from consideration of any matters that might to relate back to Joule.

Why divest to a family member? Here’s why. Joule’s not a public stock, not tradable, not so easy to divest, and there’s no reason to simply throw the shares down the sink.

5. Is there a Kremlin-backed investor in Joule?

That’s an incendiary way to put it, but there’s some truth behind the crazy escalation of language. Russia created several investment companies with state funds. Rusnano is one of them. They are run independently. Rusnano is not exactly a shadowy entity. They have an office on the Rodeo Drive of venture investing, Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road, for crying out loud.

And it’s not exactly a state secret that Rusnano invested in Joule. We reported on it here.

6. How many companies has Rusnano invested in?

To date, 82. Among them Selecta Biosciences, Quantenna Communications, Bind Therapeutics, Advenira, SynBio, LED Microsensor, Nesscap Energy.  They also were an investor with Burrill & Co, the US-based life sciences venture firm. You can find out all about the investment fund and its portfolio, here.

7. Did the connection to Rusnano come from Podesta?

No. They’re not hard to find. Ultimately the tie appears to come via Flagship Ventures CEO Noubar Afeyan — Flagship incubated Joule and Flagship partner Brian Baynes is Joule’s CEO.

The story is more about the global Armenian community than the Kremlin, when you get down to it. Take for example Trioka Dialog CEO Ruben Vardanyan and Rusnano USA CEO Dmitry Akhanov, both on the Joule board.

Afeyan and Vardanyan teamed up in 2015, for example, with Carnegie president Vartan Gregorian, to create the 100 LIVES charitable project as a part of the observations of the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, Vardanyan and Rusnano CEO Anatoly Chubais co-founded the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO, which has close ties to MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Afeyan is a lecturer at Sloan and Flagship is closely tied to the school —  because, er, venture firms look for emerging technologies. And they look for investors. They’re, um, a venture capital fund.

8. Why would a Russian company take an interest in a US-based fuels company?

To make some money.. Plus, Joule’s technology, which uses CO2 and brackish water to make ethanol, diesel and jet fuel — has strategic application in Russia.

9. What did The Journal, Breitbart etc miss that might raise further questions?

Well, Afeyan, Podesta and Joule director Graham Allison were in contact by phone as late as last fall, when Podesta had transferred out of government and over to the Clinton campaign. The email turned up via the hack of Podesta’s email account that appeared on WikiLeaks.

A call took place on August 12th, and led the following email:

From: Noubar Afeyan

Sent: Monday, August 31, 2015 8:06 AM

To: ‘[email protected]’ <[email protected]>; ‘Allison, Graham’ <[email protected]>

Subject: follow up on our call re Joule

Dear John,

I am sorry it took me a little while to follow up on our phone call about Joule.  Our team was in Europe last week for an important set of meetings with the prospective alliance partners (confidentially they are Shell and Engie – former GDF Suez) joining Audi and Joule to form the reverse combustion coalition.

As promised, I am providing to you a corporate slide presentation, a short summary of the company and videos of the Hobbs plant.  Please let me know if I should change any of it, or feel free to edit as you see fit.

I look forward to learning about next steps and to your guidance for the company about how best to forge partnerships globally.

Best regards,


Nothing came of it, apparently, leading Afeyan to write again on October 12th:

From:[email protected]

To:  [email protected], [email protected]

Date: 2015-10-12 16:10

Subject: Resending: follow up on our call re Joule

Dear John,

I wanted to get this back on your radar screen hoping you can make some intros in the far east as we had previously discussed. Please let me know how I can follow up.



9. What’s Shell’s role in all this?

Well, interesting question. Audi has been public about its association with Joule and “its ambitious vision for CO2-neutral mobility. This vision, in part, calls for increasing levels of renewable fuels to supplant petroleum-derived fuels and reduce related CO2 emissions. The strategic partnership will directly enable Audi’s e-ethanol and e-diesel programs.”

But Shell and Engie, that’s news that they are considering joining a global alliance around reverse-combustion.

10. What is reverse combustion, anyway?

It’s a way of describing the Joule process, and others like it. Simply put, fuels make CO2 through combustion: reverse-combustion would take that CO2 (plus water and sunlight) and make it back into a fuel. It’s not entirely different from any biofuels (or algae biofuels) process — ultimately, plants use, sunlight, water and CO2 to make a crop, which is then processed into a fuel. But the Joule process goes directly from CO2 and water to a fuel — bypassing the plant’s crop-creation step.

They call it liquid fuel from the sun.

As ACS wrote, here:

Converting CO2 into a renewable energy sources would involve capturing the gas from the smokestacks of coal-fired electric power generating stations, for instance, and processing it with catalysts or other technology into fuels and raw materials for plastics and other products.

The Bottom Line

Conspiracy theorists looking for a Podesta smoking gun aren’t going to find anything remarkable in Joule’s investor base – Podesta and the Russians were essentially ships passing in the night.

However, we remain curious about Podesta’s ongoing activities with Joule. Is he in, or is he out? We asked Joule about it, and   haven’t heard back. You may have heard the old legal precept “silence gives consent”.  We’ll be looking in our inbox for that emphatic Nyet.

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