Following Dr Kartar Lalvani’s election as fellow of an esteemed scientific institution, Ashis Ray charts the achievements of this pioneering scientist and entrepreneur
On May 10, at a stylish dinner amid awe-inspiring objects at London’s 167-year-old Science Museum – including George Stephenson’s 1829 steam engine, Alan Turing’s 1950 computer and the Apollo 10 capsule that went into lunar orbit in 1969 – Dr Kartar Lalvani, 86, was elected a fellow by the Science Museum Group (SMG),‘in appreciation of his distinguished contribution’ towards creating a Medicines Galley, scheduled to open in 2019 at the British capital’s iconic exhibition site. The Indian origin scientist and entrepreneur thus joined a select group of recipients of this honour, including Queen Elizabeth II. The only other person of Indian extraction to be so recognised is the Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who was conferred the fellowship last year.
Joining Lalvani in receiving the accolade, and sitting next to him, was Elizabeth’s daughter Princess Anne, for ‘her great support of women in science and engineering and encouragement of young people to engage further with science, technology, engineering and mathematics’. Previous winners include broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, the late mathematician Professor Stephen Hawking and Russian cosmonaut Dr Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Kartar Lalvani is a man of few words. In accepting the fellowship from Dame Mary Archer, chairman of the board of trustees of the Science Museum Group, he said simply,‘To be honoured by this renowned, iconic institution is the highest affirmation and accolade of my life’s work that I could imagine.’
The United Kingdom, indeed the entire world, is full of Indian migrants’ success stories. The 2017 Global India Rich List of billionaires is replete with people of Indian origin across the globe who have built enormous businesses. But there are few outside India who have established a pharmaceutical enterprise from scratch. One such is Lalvani, who founded Vitabiotics in 1971, today Britain’s‘No 1 Vitamin Company’.
A Sindhi Sikh, Lalvani obtained a PhD from London and a DSc from Bonn. The Times of Britain wrote that he and his former teacher, Professor Arnold Beckett – a pioneer in drug testing in sport who spent a quarter of a century as a member of the medical commission on the International Olympic Committee – ‘worked on many ground-breaking innovations, including development of many of the UK’s most widely used nutraceuticals’.
They launched Omega-H3, which the company claims was ‘the first true comprehensive multivitamin’. It remains the best-selling nutritional supplement in many countries. In the 1980s, there followed products such as Pregnacare (a pregnancy supplement), Osteocare (calcium) and Menopace (a menopause supplement) –all now household names – not to mention Perfectil (beauty vitamins and supplements) and Immunace (a blend of vitamin D, zinc and selenium for immunity).
Then in the 1990s came Diabetone, a spectrum of nutrients, along with the vitamin supplements Wellman and Wellwoman, Visionace (to maintain normal vision), Cardioace (to support healthy heart function) and Jointace (to help activity and sport), with distribution through major British retailers. Vitabiotics also acquired one of Merck& Co’s facilities as Pregnacare, Menopace, Perfectil and Osteocare became market leaders in their respective categories in the UK. It later also took over Sandoz Asia’s plants.
As the firm entered the 2000s, Wellkid, Wellteen and Liverel (to maintain normal liver function) made their debuts and appreciation began to flow thick and fast. The Department of Trade & Industry gave Vitabiotics an award for ‘outstanding achievement in export’. BT Vision named it among Britain’s top 100 most visionary companies. For four years running, Boots named it vitamin supplier of the year and in 2004 and 2008, it won the Queen’s Award for international trade as exports of Vitabiotics reached over 100 countries. In 2013, it became the first firm to receive the Queen’s Award for innovation in vitamins research and was again handed this prize in 2018.
Contemporaneously, Lalvani came to be feted for his path-breaking work. In 2008, Ernst & Young gave him the accolade of Entrepreneur of the Year, while in 2010 he was conferred an Order of the British Empire. Perhaps most prestigiously, he was extended an honorary professorship by France’s leading centre for dermatological excellence, CERT, at the Université de France-Comte – part of Europe’s 900-year-old medical institutes of St Jacques, Besancon – in recognition of his ‘ground-breaking’ research in skincare to produce Perfectil. Indeed, a few days prior to receiving the SMG fellowship, Vitabiotics had introduced a wrinkle repair Perfectil twin serum, promising ‘improved skin elasticity & smoothness’ within three weeks.
For Lalvani, it has been a 47-year journey from starting a pharmaceutical firm to becoming a celebrity in the field, and he can look back at his advance with pride. In 2016, Vitabiotics’ annual post-tax profit stood at around $50 million. Today it is a company with a $500 million turnover.
Another commendable aspect of the company is its philanthropy. It supports at least 25 charities and is a major sponsor of the £24 million Medicines Galleries to be unveiled at London’s Science Museum next year. This collection will excitingly reveal how lives have been transformed by changes in medicine and health over the past 400 years. Lalvani is also a patron and member of the Director’s Circle at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Vitabiotics is a family held company employing 3,000 people worldwide, with factories and offices in six countries. Lalvani is its chairman, with his son Tej the chief executive. His other son Ajit, a doctor and professor holding the chair in infectious diseases at Imperial College, London, is a director.
Lord Khalid Hameed, an eminent doctor and former head of London’s much sought after Cromwell Hospital, described Lalvani as ‘an outstanding human being, who has contributed to the way of life of thousands of people, including in a big way on inter-faith matters’.
Gopichand Hinduja, a member of the UK’s richest family of Indian descent, remarked that ‘Dr Kartar Lalvani is the most deserving recipient of the Science Museum Fellowship. He has made an enormous contribution to the pharma business’.
For Sarosh Zaiwalla, senior partner of Zaiwalla & Co, ‘Kartar is both a role model and an achiever who should be very proud of his accomplishments’.
In his quiet way, he is.