How this Millennial CEO ran the Serum Institute of India during Covid

Adar Poonawalla became CEO of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, at the age of 30.

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Adar Poonawalla became CEO of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, at the age of 30.

But this wasn’t his first foray into the family business.

“I started at the grassroots. I worked in all departments – and especially in marketing and sales and in export, because I wanted to build up exports,” explains the 41-year-old CEO.

The company has come a long way since its acquisition in 2011.

Today it is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer – measured by the number of doses produced and sold worldwide. According to the company, it delivers “the world’s cheapest and WHO-approved vaccines to up to 170 countries.”

Adar ran the company at the height of the global pandemic. During this time, the Serum Institute increased its production for Covid vaccines to meet global demand and began manufacturing Covishield in India – a vaccine co-developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford that is manufactured domestically.

How a horse breeder launched the world's largest vaccine manufacturer

According to the Indian Ministry of Health, Covishield accounts for almost 80% of all vaccines administered in India to date.

“We’ve invested about $2 billion over the past two years,” Adar said, adding that the completed pandemic facility “doubled our capacity.”

“We produced 1.9 billion cans in 2021 alone after committing to just 1 billion cans, so we did double what we promised.”

According to Adar, they can now produce 4 billion doses of different vaccines at the new facility.

The man behind

It was Adar’s father, Cyrus Poonawalla, who founded the Serum Institute of India in 1966 – against the backdrop of a country deluged with imported life-saving vaccines. However, the high cost of the drugs meant they were virtually inaccessible to most of India’s population.

Cyrus never imagined himself in the pharmaceutical industry – in fact he was a horse breeder who inherited his family’s racehorse breeding.

But he soon learned that horse serum was an essential ingredient in many vaccines, and that many of his farm’s retired horses were donated to the state’s Haffkine Institute for vaccine production.

At the same time Cyrus Realized vaccination rates have remained low in India, partly due to the high prices of imported vaccines.

In 1966, at the age of 25, the elder Poonawalla embarked on a journey to found the Serum Institute of India.

The company’s first product was the tetanus vaccine in 1967.

A new generation

Following in his father’s footsteps, Adar is still working on the company’s early efforts to produce vaccines at affordable prices.

“We could have asked for higher prices. But we didn’t do it,” he told CNBC Make It. “We didn’t want to take advantage beyond the point. We just wanted to make a product that is so accessible and affordable.”

By using their economies of scale to minimize costs, his company has now become the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, with an estimated 65% of the world’s children having received a Serum Institute of India vaccine, according to the company.

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Through time and experience, Adar was able to understand and predict global trends and demand, making him even more determined to ensure adequate supply. It was this forward planning that contributed to Serum’s successful and active engagement during the pandemic.

Thanks to his foresight, this decision “was also very practical during the Covid crisis” and the company had “additional capacities”.

Adar’s extensive travels also meant he met people from different places and was able to “understand where global demand was going.”

This knowledge was a driving factor that encouraged him to build enough capacity to ensure the company was able to produce enough to meet growing global demand.

Rough road ahead

However, success did not come easily.

Starting the company was a “big hurdle” for his father in the ’70s, who had to obtain permits and licenses, Adar said.

Raising enough capital to kickstart the business also proved a challenge for Cyrus, who “had no track record and no brand name,” he explained.

Vaccine production at Serum Institute of India Pharmaceutical Plant in Pune, Maharashtra, India. Like the rest of the world, the vaccine maker is currently moving away from its heavy focus on Covid-19 vaccines and expanding its product portfolio.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Shortly after joining the company, Adar was determined to increase production volumes when he realized that the company was constantly missing out on “new opportunities”.

That awareness made it “very obvious and very straightforward” for him to invest in capacity, Adar told CNBC Make It.

With the increasing urgency of Covid vaccines around the world as the pandemic spread, Adar was determined to make realistic promises to meet vaccine demand.

“You can make billions of cans if you have a year or two, but to do it in three or four months — that’s what the world really needs,” Adar stressed that meeting those expectations is crucial fulfill.

The next chapter

Like the rest of the world, Serum Institute of India is moving away from its heavy reliance on Covid-19 vaccines and is now shifting its focus to expanding its product portfolio.

As the company develops, Adar said he wants to expand into new markets.

“I am considering further expanding my portfolio of vaccines now in Europe and the United States.”

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Meanwhile, the CEO said he remains hopeful that if action is taken now, the world could be better prepared for future pandemics.

“We know what we have to do,” he explained. “But do we do that is the issue I think leaders need to address.”

Adar said he remains enthusiastic about helping other low-income countries like the African continent and Asia give them affordable access to life-saving vaccinations.

“I’m honestly quite relieved that the Covid pandemic is nearing an end – because I can get back to my pipeline of vaccines that I’ve been developing over the last few years,” Adar said.

“I just want to get back to that. And I look forward.”

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