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

Adar Poonawalla became the CEO of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, when he was 30 years old.

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Adar Poonawalla became the CEO of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, when he was 30 years old.

But this was not his first foray into the family business.

“I started, you know, at grassroots level. I worked in all departments, and especially in marketing and sales and in exports, because I wanted to build exports,” explained the CEO, now 41 years old.

The company has come a long way since taking over in 2011.

Today, it is the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, by the number of doses produced and sold globally. According to the company, it is “supplying the world’s least expensive, WHO-accredited vaccines to up to 170 countries.”

Adar led the company at the height of the global pandemic. During this time, Serum Institute increased its production of Covid vaccines to meet global demand and began manufacturing Covishield in India, a vaccine jointly developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which is produced domestically.

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

According to India’s health ministry, Covishield accounts for nearly 80% of the total vaccines administered in India so far.

“We have invested about $2 billion in the last two years,” Adar said, adding that the completed pandemic facility “doubled our capacity.”

“We produced 1.9 billion doses in 2021 alone, after committing to only one billion doses, so we did double what we had committed to.”

They are now capable of producing 4 billion doses of various vaccines at the new facility, according to Adar.

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 awash in imported life-saving vaccines. However, the high cost of the drugs made them virtually unaffordable for most of India’s population.

Cyrus never envisioned herself in the pharmaceutical industry; in fact, he was a horse breeder who inherited his family’s racehorse breeding farm.

But he soon learned that horse serum was a vital ingredient in many vaccines and that many of the retired horses on his farm were donated to the state-owned Haffkine Institute to produce vaccines.

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

In 1966, at the age of 25, the elder Poonawalla embarked on a journey to establish 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 continues to work towards the company’s early aspirations to produce vaccines at an affordable price.

“We could have charged higher prices. But we didn’t,” he told CNBC Make It. “We didn’t want to take advantage beyond the point. We just wanted to make a product that’s as accessible and affordable.”

Taking advantage of its economies of scale to minimize costs, his company has now become the world’s largest producer of vaccines, with an estimated 65% of children worldwide having been given one vaccine from the Serum Institute of India, according to the company.

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With time and experience, Adar was able to understand and predict global trends and demand, which made him even more determined to ensure sufficient supply. It was this forward planning that contributed to Serum’s success and active engagement during the pandemic.

Thanks to his foresight, this decision “was really useful even during the Covid crisis” and the company has “extra capacity”.

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

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

Bumpy road ahead

However, success did not come easy.

Setting up the company was a “huge hurdle” for his father in the 1970s, who needed to obtain permits and licenses, Adar said.

Acquiring enough capital to get the business off the ground was also a challenge for Cyrus, who “had no track record, no brand,” he explained.

Vaccine production at the Serum Institute of India pharmaceutical plant in Pune, Maharashtra, India. Like the rest of the world, the vaccine maker is moving away from its heavy focus on Covid-19 vaccines and shifting to broaden its product portfolio.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Soon after joining the company, Adar was determined to increase his production volume when he realized that the company was always missing out on “new opportunities”.

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

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

“You can make billions of doses if you’re given one or two years, but to do it in three or four months, that’s what the world really needs,” is where the management of these expectations was crucial, he stressed add

The next chapter

Like the rest of the world, the 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 it is looking to enter new markets.

“I am now looking to expand further with my vaccine portfolio in Europe and the United States.”

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Meanwhile, the CEO said he is hopeful the world can be better prepared for future pandemics if measures are implemented now.

“We know what we have to do,” he explained. “But are we doing it is the question that I think leaders will have to look at.”

Adar said he remains excited to serve other low-income countries, such as the African continent and Asia, to provide them with affordable access to life-saving immunizations.

“Frankly, I’m quite relieved that the Covid pandemic is coming to an end, because I can go back to my vaccines in my pipeline that I had been developing for the last few years,” Adar said.

“I just want to get back to it. And I’m looking forward to it.”

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