The success story of Cyrus Poonawalla: The vaccine king who is one of the world’s richest billionaires

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The success story of Cyrus Poonawalla: The vaccine king who is one of the world’s richest billionaires
India’s vaccine king tried to make an affordable Jaguar but chose to go for a ‘product of the masses’ BCCL
  • Cyrus Poonawalla, who was recently awarded the Dean’s Medal by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has led a fascinating life.
  • He started with building sports cars and later went on to build a vaccine empire, which has made immunization accessible for all, against various diseases, including the coronavirus.
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The chairman of India’s top biotech company and the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Dr. Cyrus Poonawalla of Serum Institute of India (SII), is among the top 70 richest billionaires in the world today.

At the age of 81, Poonawalla’s net worth is $21.5 billion, as per Forbes, and has been recently awarded the Dean’s award by John Hopkins for his work in providing affordable vaccines. He is called the ‘vaccine king’ as his company SII produces over 1.5 billion vaccines annually for coronavirus, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, among others.

From horse breeding to building a vaccine empire

Poonawala was born into a family of horse breeders, as his father Soli Poonawalla owned ‘Poonawalla Stud Farms.’ However, he was 20 when he decided to explore more options because he realized that horse racing had ‘ no future in a socialist country like India’.
The success story of Cyrus Poonawalla: The vaccine king who is one of the world’s richest billionaires
Representative image of a horse race, which was attended by Poonawalla in 2013

Vaccines from serum

When he was 20, Poonawalla decided to leverage his passion for cars and turn it into a viable business. So, he built a $120 replica of the Jaguar D-type with his school friend. However, he abandoned the idea of commercial production due to a shortage of funds.
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After dropping his first business plan, he wanted to make a ‘product for the masses’. He discovered that horse serum can be used to make vaccines. He decided to use his stud farm for a better cause and make vaccines affordable. There was no going back since then.

Back in the 1960s, when Poonawalla was just in the research phase of launching his serum business, which is now worth $13.8 billion, the vaccine market was still in its nascent stages. With only a few players in the game, there was a huge demand and very low supply. It was a safe option for Poonwalla to enter a less competitive market and India with an acute shortage, which were imported at high prices.

He decided to look no further and launched his vaccine business under the name SII in 1966, with a capital of Rs 9 lakh, which would later go on to help millions of people during a global pandemic, thanks to its domestically manufactured Covishield.

Since he had no medical background, he employed doctors and scientists from the government-owned Haffkine Institute at SII. Within two years, the company produced its first therapeutic anti-tetanus serum. By 1989, his company had a diverse portfolio of DTP vaccine, which protects children from diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, anti-snake-venom serum for snakebites and measles vaccine. A year later, SII became the country’s largest vaccine manufacturer.

Supplying to every second vaccinated child in the world
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It was time to expand their business offshores. In 1994, Serum Institute got accredited by the World Health Organization (WHO) for supplying vaccines to U.N. Agencies such as UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and PAHO (Pan American Health Organization).

By 1998, Serum Institute was exporting vaccines to over 100 countries and by the year 2000, one out of every two children in the world was vaccinated with an SII dose.

The vaccine king’s wealth grew the fastest among India’s billionaires during the COVID-19 pandemic and SII became a household name. His home-grown business gained international recognition after they struck a deal with Oxford University’s Jenner Institute. SII then went on to strike at least four more global partnerships with biotech companies.
The success story of Cyrus Poonawalla: The vaccine king who is one of the world’s richest billionaires
Serum Institute of India's financials BI India

His son, Adar Poonawalla is at the helm of the company now. Junior Poonawalla joined his family business in 2001 and today, he runs the day-to-day operations as company ceo and is the fifth richest person in India.
The success story of Cyrus Poonawalla: The vaccine king who is one of the world’s richest billionaires
Junior Poonawalla joined his family business in 2001<br />

Expansion to renewable energy, real estate and more
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Along the way, Senior Poonwalla also expanded his business portfolio into newer areas such as real estate, finance, renewable energy solutions, hospitality, and aviation. But, Serum Institute continues to bring in the lion’s share of his income.

While he built his business empire, his passion for sports and luxurious cars has not waned.
The success story of Cyrus Poonawalla: The vaccine king who is one of the world’s richest billionaires
Padmashree Cyrus Poonawalla with his new Ferreri car outside his palace in Pune in 2013

Today, his collection includes Rolls-Royce cars, Bentleys and Ferrari F430. It is his love for affordable vaccines, sports cars and horse racing - that make Poonawalla a man of diverse interests.
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