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Last Updated : Sep 12, 2019 06:37 PM IST | Source:

Here is why horse breeding is the secret behind success of Cyrus Poonawalla's vaccine business

With a net worth of $13 billion, Poonawalla is the fourth richest person in India and 100th in the world, according to Hurun Global Rich List - 2019.

Viswanath Pilla @viswanath_pilla

Looking to fortify its vice-like grip in the vaccine business, Serum Institute of India on September 9 inaugurated its new plant in Pune.

The plant, built with an investment Rs 4,000 crore and spread over 2 million square feet, is the world's largest multi-functional product facility. It can produce up to 500 million doses of vaccines in a year.

With a capacity to make more than 1.5 billion doses, privately-held Serum Institute is the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by volumes. Boasting  a turnover of around Rs 4,000 crore, Serum is looking to achieve the target of Rs 10,000 crore revenues by 2022.


Cyrus Poonawalla, the founder-promoter of Serum Institute, is the fourth richest person in India and 100th in the world, according to Hurun Global Rich List - 2019.

But how did someone, whose family was into horse breeding, become the world's largest vaccine maker? The answer lies in the question itself.

In Horse’s blood?

The genesis of Serum Institute lies in horses, to put it more straight, horse blood.

Horse serum, or equine serum as it is called, is a nutrient-rich fluid derived from the blood of controlled horse herds.

By late 19th century, it was known that serum retained from the blood of immunized animals contained an "antitoxin" or antibody which, when injected, cured patients suffering from diphtheria.

An antibody is protein in our body that identifies and fight invading pathogens.

To produce large amounts of antitoxin, animals were used as factories. Among animals, horses were found to be most suitable, as they had least side-effects when infected with diphtheria toxin.

Along diphtheria, tetanus and scarlet fever were other diseases that can be treated or prevented using antibodies derived from horse serum.

It was in mid 60s that a young Poonawalla realised that horse racing had "no future in the socialist India of that time", his profile says.

With his experiments to build a sports car modeled on Jaguar-D type for India not going anywhere, reality dawned on him and he felt making a product for the masses would be a smart move.

Mass product

At the time, Poonwallas were donating farm’s retired horses to government-owned Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, which made vaccines from horse serum.

A chance conversation with a vet at the farm led Poonawalla to figure out, he doesn't have to go too far, that the mass product he was thinking about could be made at his own stud farm.

Thus born Serum Institute in 1966 to make vaccines. Serum had launched its first therapeutic anti-tetanus serum within two years, and began producing the anti-tetanus vaccines.

In 1974, Serum Institute introduced the DTP vaccine, which protects children from diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, followed by an anti-snake-venom serum for snakebites in 1981.

By 1998, Serum Institute was exporting vaccines to over a 100 countries and by 2000 one out of every two children in the world was vaccinated by a vaccine of the company.

There was no turning back for the Poonawallas and Serum Institute. Serum now produces bacterial, viral, combination vaccines and recombinant biologic products.

Poonawalla's son Adar now helms the business. He is busy expanding the business through a string of acquisitions. Serum acquired the Czech arm of a US-headquartered firm - Nanotherapeutics - for 72 million Euros in April 2017. Five years earlier, it bought Bilthoven Biologicals in Netherlands for 32 million Euros. The company plans to use both the acquisitions to launch vaccines in highly regulated Europe and US.

Flamboyance at its best

The family still has strong ties with horse racing and breeding through the family’s Poonawalla Stud Farms.

Poonawallas are known for their flamboyance. They have an enviable art collection, of artworks by eminent artists such as Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, FN Souza, VS Gaitonde, SH Raza, among others. They also have artworks of internationally renowned artist such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali.

Adar Poonawalla told media two years ago that the family had close to $70-80 million art collection, which was built partly as a passion and partly as an investment.

They also known for opening up their pursue strings for the cause of art.

They also flaunt their sports cars and private jets, along with organizing concerts and fashion shows involving international celebrities for the purposes of various causes of charity.

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First Published on Sep 11, 2019 05:13 pm
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