Seo Jung-jin is a South Korean entrepreneur and the founder of Celltrion Inc., a South Korean drug maker who develops “biosimilar” drugs or cheaper versions of brand-name drugs. Celltrion began developing a treatment in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which has caused shares in the company to double. As a result, Jung-jin’s fortune has soared to almost $10 billion.
Given his wealth and status as the second-richest person in South Korea – behind only the chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. – you may expect Seo Jung-jin to have a long heritage among South Korea’s business elite. But you’d be wrong.
From Humble Beginnings to Unprecedented Wealth
Seo Jung-jin, who is 62 years old, comes from a family that sold coal briquettes for a living. Despite his working-class background, he sought further education. Jung-jin put himself through school by working as a taxi driver while he studied industrial engineering at KonKuk University in Seoul.
His background is not in pharmaceuticals at all – but in the automotive industry. He worked his way up the ladder at Daewoo Motor Co. until he was laid off due to the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
In 2000, Jung-jin collaborated with some former colleagues and founded a company called Nexol which would eventually grow to become Celltrion. Jung-Jin was drawn to the medical field because he believed the aging population of Asia and the world would provide a lucrative business opportunity.
Celltrion officially began in 2002. After failed vaccine trials in 2004, the company faced financial hardship, causing Jung-jin to look for additional capital to keep the business running. Jung-jin found a solution by turning to loan sharks to get the cash needed– allegedly pledging his own organs as collateral.
His gamble paid off. Celltrion began acquiring a steady stream of contract manufacturing orders from foreign pharmaceutical companies. This gained Celltrion the capital it needed to cover its expenses and continue to grow.
Along with other Korean tech and pharmaceutical stocks, Celltrion has outperformed the financial industry’s wildest expectations – with stocks rising five-fold in just 5 years, and a 78% surge in 2020 alone.
As a major stakeholder in the company, Jung-jin’s wealth has grown alongside his company, reaching more than $10 billion in 2020. His extraordinary rise goes against the corporate culture of “chaebols” – large family-run conglomerates – that have dominated business enterprises in Korea for years.
Jung-jin Plans to Depart from Celltrion in 2020 to Allow Others to Lead
Despite his success, Seo Jung-jin does not plan to stay with Celltrion past retirement age. He is quoted as saying that doing so would make the company a “kingdom.” Seo plans to let others continue his legacy and continue to grow Celltrion throughout the coming years.
Jung-jin’s story is certainly inspirational. Just 20 years ago, he was an entrepreneur doing his best to create a new company out of the ashes of the Asian Financial Crisis – and today, he’s one of the wealthiest people in South Korea.