Hector Romero sees his life in Asheville as no accident.
“God had it in my path that we should come to Asheville,” he says. “My wife and I loved Asheville, and so we set our eyes here.”
But his journey to the Paris of the South was neither quick nor easy. Romero, who won the Minority Enterprise Development Week’s Entrepreneur of the year award last Thursday, Sept. 11, had to overcome several challenges before founding Sanesco Inc., a local biotechnology lab on Merrimon Avenue. The company’s celebrating its 10th year in business.
Born in Venezuela, Romero had ties to the United States from a very young age, he explains.
“I first came to the U.S. in 1961,” he says. “My father was assigned to the Venezuelan embassy for six or seven years; we [went] back to Venezuela in 1967. Since the mid-70s, we’d been coming back to the U.S. off and on.”
But a changing political climate in his native country influenced his decision to immigrate permanently to the U.S. in 1984. “There was a 100 percent devaluation of currency from one day to another,” says Romero of his original pharmaceutical business in Venezuela. “So that duplicated my external debt, and then on top of that [came] currency control, so we could not get the dollars to pay our people outside the U.S.”
“We survived for a year and a half,” he continues. “But changes never came, and we had to close. I had a lot of ties to the United States, so I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to live there, and come back and forth.’”
Having lost a considerable amount due to these obstacles, Romero considered going back into generic medicine but took another direction. “I started a journey of learning and opening my mind — what is this all about, ‘integrative medicine?’ I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go, but I knew I wanted to challenge the status quo by developing sophisticated clinical tools that will help doctors improve the quality of life of their patients.”
Romero lived in South Florida for over a decade before he and his family moved to Western North Carolina in 1998. First, he worked for Great Smokies (now Genova) Laboratories, then went out on his own when he felt the culture there had started becoming “less local, more corporate.”
He left with one other scientist to start Sanesco Health International.
Down to business
As personable as he is loquacious, Romero’s passion for his business shows as he explains Sanesco’s creation and business model.
Sanesco’s has two main purviews. The first is the testing of bodily fluids for neurotransmitters levels, a methodology that was previously impossible, he says. “The only way known to test for neurotransmitter testing was tapping into cerebrospinal fluid — a very invasive procedure,” Romero says.
Many, if not the majority, of people go to a family doctor or physician who wouldn’t have the capability to perform such a procedure anyway, he continues. So he and his partners developed a way to test for hormone and neurotransmitter levels through simple tests from bodily fluids. Sanesco receives the samples and tests them in a “high-complex, highly specialized laboratory,” says Romero.
The levels of neurotransmitters and hormones in bodily fluid can indicate a host of medical diagnosis. Such imbalances manifest as bi-polar disorder, depression, ADHD, and other medical difficulties. “Neurotransmitters affect the human communication system,” says Romero. “We created a small window in to the endocrine system that the average physician did not have before.”
The second function of the company is the educational aspect: after testing the samples, Sanesco then creates a correlative analysis report, based on the measures in the samples, as well as a questionnaire provided by the patient. The company sends all this back to the patient’s physician, with the report elaborating on the neurotransmitter and hormone counts, and what these count could possibly signify. “So the doctor has a better way to quickly diagnose whatever he wants to diagnose,” says Romero. “He has a better understanding for what to recommend to the patient.”
Romero’s award capped off a Minority Enterprise Development Week that MED Chairman James Lee called “the best in several years.”
For Romero’s part, he admits his knowledge of MED was minimal. “I have never considered myself a minority to begin with. I never think like that. To me, it’s just a label. But I am so proud I actually came across this. … I think the work they’re doing is fantastic.”
Lee agrees that there’s a lot to be proud of: “We’ve always had several great [award] winners, but it some something about the dynamic of winners this year that really seemed to have taken it to the next level.”
Lee brings special mention to the youth component: For the first time, MED was able to sponsor five kids in the Youth Entrepreneurial Scholars program through A-B Tech’s Small Business Center, which takes kids through the components of creating a business plan and engaging multimedia to give hopeful entrepreneurs a chance to “get what connective business is.”
“Hopefully, it’ll spark that fire in them to say, ‘Hey I can own my own business,’” says Lee.
MED was able to front the $250 cost ($50 each) for the youths to attend the program, and Lee hopes to double that number in the coming year, in addition to a host of other goals:
“There are possibilities out there — [Eagle Marketplace] continues to progress, [and] I would love to see us have a physical space right there. It would be very meaningful to be in that community.”
“I want to continue to move us up. Each year we seem to move up a bar,” says Lee. “As we’re entering our 32nd year of events and workshops, I’m really exciting about what the future holds.”
Romero’s a new fan: “It was really emotional for me to realize, ‘I’m coming to receive an award that I don’t know much about it,’ and to find out the great work that MED does,” he says. ,”So I offered to them that night that I would love to offer my time to participate in any way that I can.”
Romero, and the community at large, has many options to support Minority Enterprise Development. First, says Lee, “Encourage those individuals that you can see that entrepreneurial spirit in. Send them through [MED] workshops. We would love to be able to give them that information.”
In addition, says Lee, MED has started a sponsor’s designation: “Someone can give as little as $1, or as much as $150, to be considered a sponsor.” He says the MED spent 90 percent of its sponsorship money on minority-owned business. “That’s something to be proud of. We’re trying to live our mission.”
But just as importantly, he says, is supporting the current minority-owned businesses in the community, like Sanesco Inc. The reasons are pretty self-evident, but just in case, Romero lays it out:
“I want my legacy to be a stronger community for my grandkids to grow in. I want to make sure I do everything in my power to leave a city where my grandkids can actually be happy and be healthy, and be contributors to the growth of the city of Asheville in every aspect, social and economic.”
For more information about MED Week, go to wncmedweek.org.