This year in 2022, Cyrus Poonawalla again has been conferred Padma Award. He got Padma Shri before in 2005 and thus have joined few elite Indians who consistently are doing for betterment of Indian Biotech and thus getting recognized on national as well as international level.
Cyrus Poonawalla’s life is an excellent example of taking challenges and turning it into opportunity. Though he came from a wealthy family background with an established business, yet he took a chance in a completely new domain when the chances of his survival were limited by government policies and he had to struggle for his survival in rapidly changing India after independence. He had no experience in vaccine development but he tried and hired doctors and scientists and within two years of operations produced the first vaccine. Today he is the most successful Biotechnology entrepreneur and Industrialist with net worth of around 18 billion USD, the richest in Indian Biotechnology and in top 10 richest Indian category.
A conversation with a veterinarian at the farm led him into the world of vaccines. He realized that the farm’s retired horses were donated to the Haffkine Institute, which was owned by the government, to make vaccines from horse serum. Poonawalla thought of trying to meet the demand for vaccines in India by extracting the serum from the horses himself, in order to create vaccines at a much cheaper rate. Dr Balakrishnan, who gave him the idea that would transform his fortunes. He suggested that Cyrus put up a processing plant in a corner of the Poonawalla farm and get into the business himself. The family’s advantage over the big pharma companies was that they had plenty of land to house the horses. The family doctor, Jal Mehta, who subsequently became vice-chairperson of SII, introduced Cyrus to Dr P.M. Wagle, who had just retired as director of the Haffkine Institute. Cyrus employed two scientists to build a small laboratory in a corner of the farm, which had a lot of barren land for breeding.
During his initial years, Poonawalla faced hardships in arranging finances for his company. He started Serum Institution in 1966 with USD 12,000, which he raised by selling horses. In 1966, on Cyrus’s wedding day, the foundation stone for the SI was laid. It was a small-scale industry, with a capital of five lakh rupees to derive therapeutic serum from horse blood.
In 1967 i.e. within three years, Serum launched its first therapeutic tetanus serum and started producing anti-tetanus vaccines of which there was a huge shortage in the country. Cyrus, who has always loved horses, stopped using them to produce the serum, moving on to discarded army mules instead. The company quickly became hugely profitable and branched out into the manufacture of other vaccines.
By 1974, it started making DTP vaccine, which is known to protect children from diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. In 1981, it created anti-snake venom serum to treat snakebites. Later, SII specialises in the Tetanus, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Whooping Cough, Tetanus, Tuberculosis, Influenza, Meningitis, Polio, Rotavirus, Rabies, Pneumonia and several other diseases.
Today in his leadership, Serum Institution turned the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers, catering to 150 countries, including America and European countries. It is also a notable name in producing pediatric vaccines. Serum Institution holds a 60 percent market share in the global vaccine manufacturing segment. Dr. Poonawalla is a person who has always had a vision of creating an atmosphere where high quality vaccines do not remain as a mere luxury for children in India or the world and are offered at inexpensive prices.
Since the beginning, Cyrus focused on producing affordable vaccines to improve the lives of the mass. Some of the vaccines produced by Serum Institution are priced at Rs 5, which is even less than the price of a cup of tea in India. He had the vision to provide high-quality vaccine to all and produced a wide range of pediatric vaccines at an affordable cost. Several international agencies have collaborated with Serum Institution in his noble cause.