Opera Bioscience Takes Center Stage

The company co-founded by MBP Director Danielle Tullman-Ercek is finding financial support as it pursues next-generation protein production.

Opera Bioscience

Opera Bioscience is hitting a high note.

The startup company cofounded by Master of Biotechnology Program (MBP) Director Danielle Tullman-Ercek has received multiple accolades and significant financial backing for its development of technology that more affordably manufactures highly pure proteins.

Danielle Tullman-Ercek This funding includes a recent $150,000 award from Northwestern’s N.XT Fund, designed to help startup companies traverse the so-called “valley of death.” That valley is the time when a startup company’s idea shows promise but has yet to be tested enough to attract venture capitalist funding.

“We’re right in that sweet spot where we have ideas, we know what our milestones need to be, and we know what our market is going to be,” Tullman-Ercek said. “The N.XT Fund rigorously reviewed our research and decided to give us this funding to pursue those milestones so we can really launch our product proteins.”

Exactly which proteins Opera Bioscience will focus on to bring to market first has yet to be decided, but the ones being closely examined could be applied to everything from cultivated meat manufacturing to life-changing regenerative medicine treatments.

“We have a suite of potential candidates, and this funding is designed to help us narrow them down,” Tullman-Ercek said. “That’s what we’ll be doing over the next year: identifying the first product to bring to market from among a very promising list.”

The technology used by Opera Bioscience was developed in Tullman-Ercek's Laboratory for Engineering Membrane Proteins and Protein Membranes and eliminates much of the downstream costs previously required to develop proteins. Tullman-Ercek co-founded the company with CEO Gerry Sapienza (Kellogg ‘21) and chief scientific officer Julie Ming Liang, a PhD candidate who works in Tullman-Ercek’s lab.

In November, Opera Bioscience won the best video competition as part of the 2022 BioTools Innovator Cohort. The company previously:

  • Won the 2022 Equalize Pitch Competition (MedTech division) hosted by the Office of Technology Management at Washington University in St. Louis
  • Finished second at the Rice Veterans Business Battle 2022
  • Was a finalist in the Women in Bio Chicago Startup Challenge 8.0
  • Finished as a semifinalist in the 2021 Northwestern VentureCat competition

Opera Bioscience also received a $75,000 grant for winning the Johnson & Johnson Innovation by Veterans Quickfire Challenge.

Tullman-Ercek said the various competitions and overall process of launching a company has been eye-opening.

“Starting a company isn't just about having the idea and hiring people and praying for money,” she said. “There are whole ecosystems that go into supporting people with these great ideas to help make them successful, and it’s important to reach out for those opportunities and get feedback.”

Sometimes that feedback is that a great idea isn’t quite ready for the next step. Other times, it’s a green light that comes with financial support to help move an idea forward. The entire process was one that turned the professor into a student.

“I know how to do research at the academic level, I know how to ask a question in a hypothesis form and then test it,” she said. “When you take those results and want them to have an impact on the world, that’s not a process I’ve seen firsthand, and so I never appreciated how much goes into it.”

Tullman-Ercek and her Opera Bioscience team were recently invited to join Northwestern’s Querrey InQbation Lab, a multimillion-dollar technology accelerator designed to foster faculty entrepreneurship and commercialize scientific discoveries.

Tullman-Ercek is quick to point out that she's not alone when it comes to innovative uses of biotechnology on campus. The Center for Synthetic Biology alone has had five companies launch in the past two years that are now in various stages of development.

That focus on innovation is something that should catch the attention of prospective students searching for a top-notch master’s program in biotechnology, she said.

“There are very few universities in the country with this level of entrepreneurial activity in the biosciences,” Tullman-Ercek said. “It’s because of the culture and the programs set up here at Northwestern that helps us translate laboratory research findings into successful companies.”

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