CMG frequently comes across stories of business families that offer a mix of new thinking, lessons learned, unique perspectives – and often simply a dash of inspiration.

In recent weeks we’ve seen two similar stories of the same business family in India, and they fit clearly in the inspiration category – especially in the unique world circumstances we’re facing now. It turns out, the Poonawalla family is making a dramatic impact on the global COVID-19 pandemic by becoming the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines.

The family hasn’t always been in the vaccine business. It started in the mid-19th century in construction, gravitating to horse farms decades later. By the mid-‘1960s, under the leadership of Cyrus Poonawalla, the family identified a need to build more of a mass-market business, so it began producing badly needed medicines for meningitis, measles and tetanus in India. The Serum Institute was born.

Fast forward to today.

Serum remains family-owned and operated more than 50 years later. Cyrus is worth an estimated $12.1 billion, one of India’s wealthiest individuals. And under the leadership of his 39-year-old son (and CEO), Adar, the family business produces 1.5 billion vaccine doses a year for developing countries.

Up next for Adar is ramping up Serum’s capacity to mass-produce a coronavirus vaccine on a global scale – and make a huge difference worldwide when we need it most. Serum now has a deal in place to produce a billion doses of nCoV-19, the pandemic vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca.

As we read the coverage of the Poonawallas, it’s evident that – as a family-run business – Serum has a number of advantages it can deploy over other major vaccine producers:

  1. It embraces risk. Being family-run enables Adar to be nimble and agile, making decisions fast and taking bigger risks, like investing $700 million in a complex comprised of two large factories for manufacturing vaccines plus a giant warehouse in which to store them. The only shareholder Adar has to answer to is his father.
  1. It moves faster. Serum can quickly adapt its assembly lines to manufacture different vaccines with varying specifications. The company swiftly shifts on the fly in a way that many larger, publicly listed pharmaceuticals can’t. Says Adar:  “Very (few) can produce at this cost, this scale and this speed.”
  1. It sticks with its purpose. Adar often mentions how seriously he considers his company’s obligation to serve – seeing the pandemic as “sort of our moment.”  His stated intention now is to have a dedicated vaccine production facility constantly available going forward – in anticipation of future pandemics.

Now that’s inspiration.

If you’re interested in reading more on the Poonawalla family: