For more than 45 years, Fred Sancilio has worked in the pharmaceutical industry as a scientist and serial entrepreneur. He is currently a pharmaceutical consultant working with several different companies.
Fred Sancilio began his career while he was working towards his Ph.D. at Rutgers University in New Jersey in the research center of a major drug corporation, Hoffmann-La Roche, conducting research on new drugs. He moved on to work as the assistant director of Burroughs Wellcome Company, now known as Glaxo.
In 1979, Fred Sancilio decided to start his own drug development company, Applied Analytical Industries (AAI), to provide research and lab work. He created a business plan that set up labs that could contract with pharmaceutical companies to do some of the development work surrounding new products. At the time, AAI was the first company of its kind to provide this type of service to pharmaceutical companies. In 1996, the company went public and changed its name to aaiPharma, Inc. Fred served as CEO until 2002.
After being diagnosed with a serious illness that resulted in the rapid decline of his vision, Fred Sancilio stepped away from aaiPharma, Inc.Within eight months of his diagnosis, his vision got so poor that all he could see were shadows. Luckily, through the Mayo Clinic, Fred found an organization in Florida that was treating patients with the particular issue that he had. He enrolled at that clinic and his treatment included surgery, but two years later, his eyesight was fully recovered.
Upon recovery, Fred Sancilio decided to start another company, quickly growing it to a couple hundred employees before it was recapitalized, reorganized and taken over by investors. Following the change of control, Fred went back to consulting and continues to be involved in due diligence for investment banks and works with drug companies to design programs. He currently works with a several companies: a company that is nearing completion of an Alzheimer’s medication that looks very promising, a second company which is working on a potential therapeutic for COVID-19, and third company that focuses on inflammatory diseases that can be alleviated by correcting imbalances of fatty acids.
What do you love most about the industry you are in?
When I started at Hoffmann-La Roche back in the late 1960s, walking into my research lab was like walking into a hospital where everybody takes their job seriously. As in a hospital, everybody there was interested in finding ways of saving lives. Helping people was the motivation. I was a kid and all of these older guys at Roche were super dedicated. They worked day and night on a program and it was always related to saving lives and that commitment stayed with me throughout my career. One of the goals that I’ve set for myself in life is to try to save a million lives. Before I die, I’d like to look back and say, yes, I probably did save those lives with the drugs that my teams brought into being. We’ve certainly impacted at least a million lives. That is why I’m doing this. It’s not because it’s lucrative or not lucrative. I’m doing it because the outcome is good. We’re helping people who might otherwise suffer and die.
What keeps you motivated?
If the sickle cell treatment I’ve been working on makes it to the market, it will impact at least 180,000 kids in the United States and they will no longer have to face horrible pain and expect to be in the hospital for 10 to 15 days each year. Normally, kids with sickle cell disease spend that much time in the hospital to treat their pain or to receive blood transfusions.
If the Alzheimer’s drug we’re developing works the way we think it is going to work, it may slow or even halt the progression of the disease and give the patient five or six more good years of life. That is a tremendous help.
If the work with the fatty acids continues to progress like it is, people will have less pain and suffering and that’s what motivates me.
How has your company grown from its early days to now?
When I select potential new clients I sometimes take an equity interest in the projects that I work on. I don’t always take a salary, but I do take a percentage of ownership in the company. If I flop, I’m usually as harmed as my clients. If I succeed, I get a percentage. I am aligning myself so there is no conflict. We all win or we all lose.
The company working on the Alzheimer’s drug is called Alpha Cognition. They are in Vancouver, Canada. Since me and my team joined them in 2017, their value has increased five-fold.
The company working on a COVID-19 treatment was a research project at a university when I ran into it. The company’s name is TrippBio. This program is based on a discovery made by a professor called Dr. Ralph Tripp, a virologist at the University of Georgia. He discovered a therapeutic method that may get rid of COVID-19 in just a few days. The company is doing a crowdfunding offering and has already begun a proof of concept clinical trial in humans. In just four months, the drug has gone from a laboratory experiment to human testing and the results have been spectacular so far. A number of patients in South Florida will be treated in a proof of concept study hopefully within the next month. It is a proven safe material that is already approved for another use, so the FDA regulations may be served with just one trial. Realistically, it could be on the market at the first of the year if the wind blows in our direction.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
My role model was a man named Dr. Al Steyermark who was a Visiting Professor of Chemistry at Rutgers University and who had also been a vice president at Hoffmann-La Roche. He was a Jewish-German who escaped the Nazis in World War 2. He was close to 70 years old when I met him in 1968. He was an incredible scientist. He taught me how to think properly about programs and projects and was one of the best scientists I ever met. Not only was he a great scientist, but he was an incredible role model of decency.
What traits do you possess that make you a successful leader?
I think there is probably no such thing as a successful leader without a supportive team behind him. There are lucky leaders; people who happen to be in the right place at the right time and had the right team. I think the team is more important than the leader. If you put the right people together, the leader’s function is nil. For about 20 years at the first company I started, I assembled a team that didn’t need me. They did a phenomenal job. I just gave them the opportunity to do it. I gave them whatever they needed to get their job done. I think that is what a leader should do. Give people the tools to do their job and leave them alone. I’ve also seen great leaders try and “fix” a bad team. This is usually a formula for failure. When a leader sees a dysfunctional team member, his best course of action should be to eliminate that person or he or she will eliminate him!
What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
Don’t step on icy stairs! This has two meaning, one that describes a real event and another that warns you not to purposely place yourself in harms way. Sadly, my role model, Al Steyermark, died when he actually did fall down icy stairs. He broke his neck and died one cold winter’s night in Nutley, NJ. Hence, I learned that if you are going to get yourself into something that is going to cause you trouble, don’t go there. You instinctively know before you step on those stairs that you’re going to fall, so don’t step on them. So many people know that a path they are following is going to lead to a mess. Avoid those messes and go down the stairs that aren’t icy.
Outside of work, what defines you as a person?
I like to get out on the water. I love the ocean. Being out on the ocean is the ultimate calm. I don’t care how rough the water is, it is the ultimate calm.
Where do you see you and your company in five years?
I just want to continue working on these projects and make sure they get done. Then we’ll start on another. Maybe next time I will only take on two, instead of three, because three is a handful. I don’t see this as a company anymore because that would imply that I have a job. I don’t see this work as a job. This is what I do. I am picking my targets. I pick project and programs that will impact a lot of people.
Someone just recently wrote an article on interviews of people over 65 years old and they had asked, what is more important or at the forefront of your mind? COVID-19 or Alzheimer’s? Alzheimer’s won by a long shot. It’s a devastating disease. I watched my father-in-law pass away from Alzheimer’s. It’s horrible to see an entire life disappear while the person is still there. The project I am working on has three more years before it gets to market if our studies come out the way we expect them to come out. I will be very happy if my work can contribute to finding a cure or treatment for this horrible disease that destroys people and families.