With a 40-year career in medical research and development, Dr. Fred Sancilio feels more at home in the lab than on the beach. Before he relocated to the Sunshine State, Dr. Sancilio had built a national pharmaceutical contract business based in North Carolina, and his wife Alex had started and led a successful health insurance firm in Hawaii.
When the couple retired to the Florida, the last thing on their mind was creating a new company. But fortunately for those suffering from diseases such as Sickle Cell Disease, Hypertriglyceridemia and Short Bowel Syndrome, the Sancilios decided to launch a second career in Palm Beach County by opening Sancilio & Company Inc., a national biopharmaceutical research and manufacturing company.
The story of the new company’s growth, which involved support from state programs that helped cover the cost of training new employees, shows why efforts by economic development groups around Florida are working. The payoff is noteworthy: job growth in industries that increase the state’s economy beyond its traditional base of tourism, real estate and agriculture.
“Our vision is to save at least one million lives over the next 10 years”
“We specialize in developing and manufacturing drugs for diseases that impact relatively small numbers of children,” said Alex. “The diseases we focus on addressing – which effect thousands of kids as opposed to millions – are not receiving the attention of large drug companies. With these diseases, large drug companies do not see enough earning potential to validate paying the tens of millions of dollars needed for research required for FDA approval.”
Fred knew that developing a national pharmaceutical company focused on children’s diseases would involve innovative thinking. He understood the way large drug companies ran research and development, and felt he could figure out how to do it more quickly, which would make it less expensive.
He also recognized the potential Palm Beach County had to be a research community and that it could be a good location for his business. Biopharmaceutical businesses need an airport connecting to international markets and other scientific research heavyweights to partner with on projects. Another advantage – having local universities that either have a strong talent pool or are willing to work with companies to develop qualified job candidates.
“At about the same time I was tinkering with the idea of starting a pharmaceutical company, talk started about the Scripps Institute coming to our area,” Fred said. “I knew having Scripps as a neighbor would help attract the world-class scientists and technicians that we needed nearby to succeed.”
His plans were well-timed because the Florida Legislature was pushing to develop alternative employment opportunities for Floridians beyond the traditional sectors. Florida deciding to invest in Scripps and the Max Planck Research Institute had the desired effect of persuading Fred that the time was right to launch Sancilio & Company.
With investment capital from the towns of Jupiter and Palm Beach Gardens, matched by funding from Enterprise Florida, Sancilio & Company launched and then hired 50 people in less than two years, while paying back both loans within three years.
Access to capital played a large role in the Sancilios’ ability to establish their company, but finding talented, capable and skilled employees was also a noteworthy challenge for the new business.
“The hardest part about getting started was recruiting the right talent pool. When you are a name brand like Pfizer you cannot read resumes fast enough,” said Alex. “When we were beginning, we hardly had the time and money to do the work we had, let alone have the resources to attract and train talented employees.”
Thankfully, state and local economic development professionals again stepped up to assist through Florida’s CareerSource program. Formerly called Workforce Alliance, the state-run program helped fund training for displaced workers who lived near Sancilio & Company. Some were middle-career employees from different fields and industries. Nearly a decade later, these employees are still happily working at Sancilio & Company.
“Organizations like Workforce Alliance made it possible not only for me, but for many unemployed people to find jobs with a good company that they can grow with,” says Terri Carrasco, an Sancilio & Company customer service representative.
To further develop the local workforce supporting this growing sector, Sancilio & Company scientists and employees now teach a class at Florida Atlantic University. The partnership prepares students to hit the ground running at companies like Sancilio & Company and fosters internships that have led to Florida Atlantic University students being hired immediately after graduation.
“The prospect of going for months without being able to actualize the promise of a bachelor’s degree because of lack of experience was demoralizing and terrifying,” said Horace Smith, former Florida Atlantic University intern and current employee. “At Sancilio & Company, I gained the needed industry experience at a time when realistically speaking such a prospect was minimal if not downright improbable.”
Today, Sancilio & Company employs nearly 200 people, has several new drugs in clinical development and continues to add scientists and support staff.
“We expect to grow into a major drug company bringing drugs to market to save children’s lives,” said Fred. “Our vision is to save at least one million lives over the next 10 years.”
The Sancilios’ story is one that demonstrates how economic development efforts in Florida pay off, resulting in new industries and jobs that help the economy diversify and grow.