This article is part of a series on companies in Northwestern’s Querrey InQbation Lab.
Synthetic biology has exploded onto the scene. By applying engineering approaches to biology, the field has spawned breakthroughs in areas such as drug discovery, agriculture and sustainability.
Danielle Tullman-Ercek, co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, has pioneered a highly enabling biomanufacturing platform for proteins that avoids the complexity of current systems and provides routes too difficult to produce proteins. However, without a background in the biotech industry, Tullman-Ercek, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, said she didn’t initially recognize the commercial value of her synthetic biology innovations.
“I started presenting at conferences with companies in attendance who were making proteins,” Tullman-Ercek said. “These company representatives would find me after hearing my talks, and I would basically send them away without realizing it because I spoke only about the science and didn’t know how to market my idea.”
Fortunately, when Tullman-Ercek joined Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering in 2016, she was promptly directed to the Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO) where she was told her research on protein secretion might be worth patenting.
INVO connected Tullman-Ercek with Equalize, a program for women academic inventors out of Washington University in St. Louis. She participated in its pitch competition last summer and was named the overall winner in the competition’s MedTech category.
Soon after connecting with INVO and filing her first patent application, Tullman-Ercek, founded Opera Bioscience, an acronym that stands for Optimized Protein Expression Research and Applications.
Today, the majority woman-owned and veteran-run startup is working to create affordable, high-purity proteins for commercial applications. Applications for the proteins, growth factors and enzymes from Tullman-Ercek’s lab might include creating affordable and animal-free precursors to products like biofuel for transportation and meat alternatives for companies that develop plant-based substitutes for meat products.
A year and a half after launch, Opera is now in the process of moving into Northwestern’s Querrey InQbation Lab, located at 1801 Maple Ave., in downtown Evanston.
Named in honor of Kimberly K. Querrey (’22, ’23 P), chair of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Committee of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, the Querrey InQbation Lab provides a home for Northwestern’s highly entrepreneurial faculty to contribute to innovation through commercialization of sophisticated scientific discoveries as well as bring economic growth and opportunities to the Evanston and Chicago communities.
Opera’s co-founder and CEO, Gerry Sapienza ’21 MBA, first learned of Tullman-Ercek’s research as a student in a Kellogg School of Management class co-taught by Lisa Dhar, associate vice president for Innovation and New Ventures. After hours of in-depth meetings poring over the science of Tullman-Ercek’s system and discussions with Julie Liang, the lead graduate student on the research project and now Opera’s chief scientific officer, Sapienza was sold.
“I was blown away because the market potential was huge, but also because of the potential for the technology to impact other industries that were working toward a more sustainable world by making animal-free or petroleum-free products,” said Sapienza, who previously served 10 years of active duty in the U.S. Army before becoming a part of the Army Reserves with the Northwestern ROTC program.
“There’s so much we’re doing in the lab now that we never would’ve thought to do without these conversations with the business side of the world — they ask questions that we had not asked before,” Tullman-Ercek said.
To better understand and refine their target market through customer discovery, Tullman-Ercek and Sapienza participated in several INVO-hosted events including the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) local Innovation Corps, an experiential training program preparing scientists to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory, and the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Sprint, through which consultants guided teams to prepare strong grant applications. Opera also received funding through Northwestern’s N.XT fund, which supported key commercial milestones in 2022.
One of the main advantages of Opera’s technology is that it uses a process called continuous fermentation. In traditional protein secretion systems for biotechnology, the process takes many days and requires stopping the reaction and breaking open cells to release and purify the product. With continuous fermentation, the tank keeps running as more substrate is added — the input — to convert into a product that is already pure and separate from the cell. It’s an economy of scale.
Tullman-Ercek said her background as a “scientist who tries to connect with the business side of the world but doesn’t always get it right” is balanced by Sapienza, who sees many benefits to being in the Querrey InQbation Lab space.
“When we got there, there were so many bioreactors that collectively have an enormous fermentation capacity,” Sapienza said. “We would’ve had to lease the equipment, and now we can potentially even bootstrap the company using equipment from the InQbation Lab.
“On top of that, being around other companies has been awesome. Just being able to talk to other entrepreneurs in the same space and have little off-the-cuff conversations is invaluable.”
Tullman-Ercek has a financial interest in and affiliations with Opera Bioscience. Northwestern University has financial interests (equities, royalties) in Opera Bioscience.
Northwestern’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship ecosystem strives to strengthen entrepreneurial activity by students and faculty and build a self-sustained and collaborative community that moves ideas beyond academia and into the market, generating innovations to benefit society.