By Brigitta Shouppe
With 40 years of work in medical research and development, Dr. Fred Sancilio feels more at home in the lab than on the beach. Before he moved to Florida, 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 they retired and moved to the Sunshine State, the last thing on their minds was starting a new company. But thankfully for those suffering from diseases like Sickle Cell Disease, Hypertriglyceridemia and Short Bowel Syndrome, the Sancilios decided to launch a second career in Palm Beach County, opening Sancilio & Company Inc., a national biopharmaceutical research and manufacturing company.
The story of their new company’s growth, which involved assistance from state programs that helped cover the cost of training new employees, shows why efforts by economic development groups around the state are working. The payoff is significant: job growth in industries that expand Florida’s economy beyond its traditional base of tourism, real estate and agriculture.
“We specialize in developing and manufacturing drugs for diseases that impact relatively small numbers of children,” says Alex. “The diseases we focus on addressing – which impact thousands of kids as opposed to millions – are not getting the attention of large drug companies.
With these diseases, large drug companies don’t see the potential to earn enough to justify paying the tens of millions of dollars needed for research required for FDA approval.”
Fred knew that building a national pharmaceutical company focused on these types of children’s diseases would require innovative thinking. He had seen 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 knew Palm Beach County had the potential to be a research community, and could be a good location for his new business. Biopharmaceutical businesses need an airport connecting them to international markets, other scientific research heavyweights to partner with on projects, and 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 making a push to develop alternative employment opportunities for Floridians beyond the traditional sectors. Florida’s decision to heavily invest in Scripps and the Max Planck Research Institute had the desired effect of convincing Fred that the time was right to launch Sancilio & Company Inc. (SCI).
With investment capital from the towns of Jupiter and Palm Beach Gardens, matched by funding from Enterprise Florida, SCI 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 launch their company, but finding capable and talented employees was also a significant challenge for this new business.
“Hands down the hardest part about getting started was finding the right talent pool. When you’re a name brand like Pfizer you can’t read resumes fast enough,” says Alex. “But when we were just starting up, 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 help through Florida’s CareerSource program. Formerly called Workforce Alliance, the state-run program helped fund training for displaced workers who lived near SCI.
Some were middle-career employees from completely different fields who nearly a decade later are still happily working at SCI. “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 SCI customer service representative.
To further develop the local workforce to support this growing sector, SCI scientists and employees now teach a class at Florida Atlantic University. The partnership prepares students to hit the ground running at companies like SCI and fosters internships that have led to FAU 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,” says Horace Smith, former FAU intern and current SCI employee. “At SCI I was able to gain the needed industry experience at a time when realistically speaking, such a prospect was minimal if not downright improbable.”
Today, SCI 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,” says Fred. “Our vision is to save at least 1 million lives over the next 10 years.”
All in all, the Sancilios’ story is one that shows how economic development efforts in the state pay off, resulting in new industries and jobs that help Florida’s economy diversify and grow.