Adar Poonawala: A Visionary Mind Behind the Serum Institute

“What happened in the pandemic was that we became far more internationally known.”- Adar Poonawala, CEO of Serum Institute of India

Amid the high-risk threat of COVID-19 variants, the Serum Institute of India collaborated with the Indian government to manufacture a vaccine known as COVID-19. It wouldn’t have been possible without the visionary mind and leadership of Adar Poonawala, CEO of The Serum Institute of India. 

Today, it is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturing company by number of doses and sales, also accredited by the World Health Organisation(WHO). At 41, Adar Poonawala sees the success that most people could only dream of. His story, from working in different departments to becoming the CEO of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturing company, is inspirational and full of valuable lessons.

Recognised as a poster boy of India’s COVID-19 vaccination drive, Adar Poonawala is the perfect example of turning crisis into opportunity. With the help of his strategic mind and leadership, the Indian government successfully provided every person with a free COVISHIELD. 

He was born on 14 January 1981 and is the son of Cyrus Poonawala, who founded The Serum Institute of India. Adar did his early schooling at the Bishops’ School in Pune, Maharashtra. After that, he was admitted to St. Edmund’s School, Canterbury, where he completed high school and obtained his bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Westminster.

Career Highlights of Adar Poonawala

Adar joined the Serum Institute of India in 2001 after completing his graduation. In an interview with CNBC Make it, Poonawala said he started at the grassroot level and worked in various departments.

“I started, you know, at the grassroots level. I worked in every department — and particularly in marketing and sales and in exports because I wanted to build the exports.”– Adar Poonawala

When he joined Serum Institute, the company used to work on domestic levels only. From the beginning, Adar focused on the international market and exported its products to 35 countries. Poonawala concentrated on building his company’s international relations, getting licenses for new products and pre-qualified by the World Health Organization(WHO). As a result, it became easier for Serum Institute to supply products to the United Nations Agencies, including PAHO and UNICEF.

As per the report shared by the Serum Institute of India in 2015, the company exported its products to over 140 countries, which helped it get 85% of its revenue from overseas operations. Due to Adar Poonawala’s hard work and dedication towards business expansion beyond borders, he was appointed CEO of Serum Institute in 2011.

In 2012, Adar played a crucial role in acquiring a Netherland-based vaccine company named Bilthoven Biological. After that, he became a board member of the global vaccine alliance.

In 2014, Adar Poonawala initiated and launched Serum Institute’s oral polio vaccine, which was a huge success. After that, he expanded the company’s vaccine portfolio for dengue, flu, and cervical vaccines in the same year. He is the man who led the company’s biggest campaign for producing the COVID-19 vaccine, due to which Serum Institute of India gets global recognition.

Awards & Recognition

Adar Poonawala is the backbone of the global success of the Serum Institute of India, for which he got awards and recognition. He received various awards from state and central governments for his efforts to produce and supply COVISHIELD.

  • Awarded and listed as Philanthropist of the Year by GQ Magazine(2016)
  • Received Humanitarian Endeavour Award in Hall of Fame Awards(2017)
  • Business Leader of the Year by Maharashtra Government(2018)
  • Listed in Fortune Magazine’s ’40 under 40′ in healthcare category
  • Entrepreneur of the Year by the Economic Times(2021)
  • Listed on Time 100 list of most influential people of the world(2021)

Despite the golden business opportunity, Poonawala always kept the company’s focus on people’s safety. Initially, the government made COVISHIELD available in January 2021 for Rs 400 to the states and Rs 600 to the local hospitals. However, Adar Poonawala reduced the price per dose to Rs 300 to the states.

During an interview with Business Today Magazine in 2022, Adar Poonawala said, “In early 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, we knew very little about the virus. We barely knew what technologies and vaccines would work. The first challenge was deciding whether I should get into this and risk money, time, and capital resources. But as a manufacturer, I wanted to serve my people and my country.”

Adar Poonawala’s journey of making Serum Institute of India the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer showed his visionary mind and never-give-up attitude. Operating in the field of life science, Poonawala overcomes the challenges and leverages the opportunities while ensuring the safety of billions of people in India.

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