A South Korean Drugmaker Used To Borrow From Loan Sharks. He’s Now Worth $10 Billion.

Photo Credit: fortune.com

Seo Jung-jin is a South Korean entrepreneur and the founder of Celltrion Inc., a South Korean drugmaker that is now working on developing a treatment for COVID-19 coronavirus. His fortune has swelled to almost $10 billion, thanks to shares in his company doubling during the COVID-19 crisis.

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, was born to a family that sold coal briquettes for a living. Despite his working class background, he sought further education, and worked as a taxi driver in Seoul as he attended Konkuk University, where he studied industrial engineering.

His background is not in pharmaceuticals at all – but in the automotive industry. He rose through the ranks of Daewoo Motor Co. until he was laid off when the company was bankrupted during the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

In 2000, he founded a company called Nexol with former colleagues, and this company would eventually grow to become Celltrion. Seo Jung-Jin was interested in 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, and ran into some problems after failed vaccine trials in 2004. Seo had to turn to loan sharks to get cash to keep his business going – allegedly pledging his own organs as collateral.

His gamble paid off. His company, which developed “biosimilar” drugs – cheaper versions of brand-name drugs – began acquiring a steady stream of contract manufacturing orders from foreign pharma companies, and gained the capital it needed to cover its costs 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, Seo’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.

Seo 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.

Seo’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.

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