FOR 81-YEAR-OLD — Cyrus Soli Poonawalla, the owner of the world's largest vaccine company by doses, love of cars came much before a passion for vaccines. In his early 20s, Poonawalla's tryst with business began with development (along with a schoolfriend) of a $120 prototype sports car modelled on D-type Jaguar. However, what worked was an idea that came much later — making vaccines for the masses.
Hailing from a family that was into horse racing and owned a sprawling stud farm in Pune, Poonawalla figured out at the age of 25 that he can meet demand for vaccines by extracting serum from horses and produce cheaper vaccines instead of donating retired horses to government-owned Haffkine Institute in Mumbai.
In 1966, he founded Serum Institute of India (SII), which launched its first anti-tetanus serum within two years. Half a century later, SII has a capacity to produce 1.5 billion doses a year. Supply of Covishield and other vaccines during the pandemic has swelled Poonawalla's net worth to ₹1,62,848 crore on account of promoter family ownership in two flagship firms, privately-held SII and listed non-banking financial company Poonawalla Fincorp.
However, Poonawalla has maintained strong ties with India's horse racing and breeding industry. He has been a member of the Asian Racing Federation for more than a decade. The group also owns Poonawalla Aviation Pvt. Ltd., a non-scheduled operator. Poonawalla's societal commitments are clearly visible in pricing of SII's vaccines. SII meets 85% of its energy requirements by wind power and has taken several green initiatives. The company has constructed and maintains several public gardens in Pune city. In 2011, after the demise of his wife Villoo Poonawalla, his son Adar Poonawalla founded the Villoo Poonawalla Foundation in her memory to support several schools, a multispecialty hospital, run a city-wide sanitation and waste management project and provide clean drinking water to more than 35 locations. The success of the vaccine business has not diminished Poonawalla's passion for cars. His fascinating collection of sports cars and custom-built limousines remains his first love.