Tej Kohli: The Bionic British Kids Who Are Ready To Take On The World
Tej Kohli is the founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation whose ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy supports the development of scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making interventions to rebuild people and communities around the world. Tej Kohli is also an impact investor who backs growth-stage artificial intelligence and robotics ventures through the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle.
More than fifteen years ago my wife and I launched the Tej Kohli Foundation and in the years since we have made direct interventions to improve many people’s lives. A ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy drives our dual approach of making grassroots interventions whilst simultaneously funding the development of the new sciences and technologies which can create novel solutions that are accessible, affordable and scalable worldwide.
Perhaps the best manifestation of the ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy is the ‘Future Bionics’ program that the Foundation launched in the United Kingdom in 2019. The program has committed to funding the provision of the world’s first clinically approved myo-electric bionic arms to British children who have limb difference. The bionic arms are designed and manufactured in the UK using 3D printing by a company in which I am also an investor.
Much has been written about the promise of technology to improve human life. I have myself proselytised about the way that robotics and AI will improve every aspect of our lives and how I have organised my deep tech investments to reflect this optimism. But not enough is written about how the promise of technology is manifesting in real life.
Thanks to the Future Bionics program we can now get an insight into how new assistive technologies are substantially improving the lives and confidence of younger people with disabilities in the UK. The young people who have been receiving the world’s first clinically approved myo-electric prosthesis are proving this in many different ways.
Tilly from County Durham
Take Tilly from County Durham. Tilly is not a recipient of bionic arms from the Tej Kohli Foundation, but an ambassador for UK-based manufacturer Open Bionics who created the arms. Since receiving her arms Tilly has become an inspirational poster girl for other young people who also live with limb difference. Her stated objective is to make bionic arms fashionable and she wants to see them appear in the top catwalk shows worldwide.
My wife and I had the good fortune to spend some time with Tilly and her mother when we launched the Tej Kohli Foundation’s Future Bionics program. We were absolutely blown away by her confidence and her tenacity and her wisdom beyond her years. Tilly contracted meningococcal septicaemia in 2007 at the age of just 15 months. Despite her parents being told that she was likely to die, Tilly survived after her arms and toes were amputated.
Tilly says of her bionic ‘Hero Arms’:
“Before I used to wear very basic myoelectric hands. What I mean by ‘very basic’ is that they only opened (not very far) and closed. There were no other grips that you could do, they just literally open and close. Those hands also looked different. They were made out of silicon, based off my older sister’s hands. This made me feel more like everyone else. I blended in. But that’s just not what I wanted to be like. I wanted to stand out from the crowd. I didn’t want to hide the fact that I had no hands and I just wanted to be me!”
Since receiving her bionic arms Tilly has appeared on the red carpet at the world premiere of Alita: Battle Angel alongside Director James Cameron; and has appeared on television programmes that have been watched by millions of people. Every time that she appears, she reaches out to more young people like her and advocates for the ways in which the bionic arms can improve their confidence, as well as their ability to do everyday tasks.
“I love the Hero Arm! It’s so much fun to use and I’m finding out new things I can do with it every day. I’m a very independent person and I don’t like relying on other people, which is probably why I have adapted so well. I can do everything that people with hands can do. I love the fact that I can pose and do other things that I could do before but just a little easier. And I love being able to match my outfit with my hand!”.
Jacob from Blackburn, UK
Christmas came early for 10-year-old Jacob from Blackburn when he received his bionic arm as a present from the Tej Kohli Foundation in December 2019. Jacob was born without his left lower arm due to amniotic band syndrome, a rare condition that can damages a foetus’s limbs in the womb.
His mother Kathryn said:
“when Jacob was three, he asked me when his hand was going to grow back, which was heart breaking”.
Jacob tried prosthetics from the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, but the abandonment rate for artificial NHS limbs if around 50%. Jacob’s father David said:
“the NHS arms are more like helper hands. They’re big on aesthetics rather than having practical and useful grips. Jacob’s NHS arm was heavy and after a few weeks it developed a faulty connection and Jacob stopped wearing it”.
Despite his limb difference Jacob has always been very sporty and active. His new bionic arm was 3D printed in blue and white, the colours of Blackburn Rovers, his favourite football team. Jacob also plays rugby, serving as a speedy winger for his local team in Blackburn, and once attended the Manchester City Youth Academy to scout his professional potential.
After Jacob had spent a few months getting used to his new bionic arm, in March 2020 the Tej Kohli Foundation arranged for him to be a mascot for the England Rugby Team at Twickenham during a Six Nations rugby match. As well as meeting all of the England players, Jacob went out onto the pitch where he fervently sang the national anthem whilst showing his arm to millions of viewers who were watching at home.
Wearing his new Hero Arm has increased Jacob’s confidence whilst making his everyday life even easier. Given his performance as an England mascot, Jacob is another young Brit who is on track to become a role model to young people the world over, regardless of whether they too have limb difference. Before receiving his arm Jacob had always dreamed that one day he might be able to share hands with the UK Prime Minister. And in March 2020 he was able to do just that when met with Boris Johnson to show him his bionic arm and to advocate for its superior technology to be available from the NHS.
Emma from Aberdeen, UK*
It is easy to be cynical in a world of ‘influencers’ about the worth that they bring to the world. But we have learned through the Future Bionics program just how important it is for young people with disabilities to be able to go online and see others like them doing well. Not every young person with a bionic arm is destined to become an influencer, but it is important that those who can assume their position as an important role model to others like them.
One of the children who was enthusiastically watching YouTube videos of young people like Tilly and her “cool bionic hands” was 8-year-old Emma, a quadruple amputee from Aberdeenshire who lost both of her arms and both of her legs above the knee when she contracted meningococcal septicaemia at the age of just two years old.
Emma spent her early years in foster care before being adopted into a family where her new ‘sister’ also had additional support needs. Thanks to the full-time care of her adoptive parents, Emma became determined and feisty and soon smashed brand new challenges like riding a bike for the first time.
Emma’s adoptive parents believed that a Hero Arm would help to make her more able, and so on her eight birthday, when she reached the lower age limit, Emma received the world’s first multi-grip bionic arm from the Tej Kohli Foundation. If Emma and her family had not been for being able to discover and learn about the bionic arm online, they may never have connected with the Tej Kohli Foundation to be able to receive one.
It’s stories like this that underline a key precept of the Tej Kohli Foundation. It is never enough simply to make interventions or to give money and hope for the best. One also has to share stories. Because only by sharing stories do serendipitous new opportunities arise. Whether it is scientists coming forward to create new collaborations or eight-year-olds who need help to purchase their bionic limbs, sharing stories usually leads to very good things.
Jacob from Birmingham, UK*
And not every story needs to be big. One of the most recent recipients of a bionic arm from the Tej Kohli Foundation is Jacob, a 15-year-old who was born with an absent lower forearm and hand. At fifteen Jacob is very conscious of his self-image. Like Tilly he also aspires to ‘normal but different’.
Jacob has autism and is obsessed with robots and transformers, so the idea of being a ‘bionic’ human filled him with excitement and optimism about boosting his self-image. He wanted to make a statement that he is proudly different, but also to have a functioning arm that would enable him to perform far more everyday tasks which would make his life easier.
In April 2020 he received his fully funded bionic Hero Arm from the Tej Kohli Foundation. It is too soon to know what Jacob will do with his life, but it is safe to hope that with his new arm his confidents and prospects will improve.
These younger people provide a peak through the window into a world where technology is creating human betterment. When technologies such as 3D printing start to become endemic in their application, and entrepreneurs and engineers are able to use them to create new solutions. A world where the promise of technology is increasingly fulfilled. And in my view this is only the beginning of a brave new technology driven world.
I am determined to use my own experiences of rebuilding myself to help others to rebuild themselves too. At my instruction the Tej Kohli Foundation is now seeking to expand its Future Bionics project with an ambition to help every single child in the UK who lives with limb difference. And as we do I hope to continue to share my wisdom for rebuilding themselves:
“No matter what you do there will always be people who want to bring you down. But they only want to see you down because it makes them feel better about themselves. Don’t give them that satisfaction. Keep building yourself. Keep giving back. And keep helping others.”
* details have been changed to protect identities