Tej Kohli is using his success to help rebuild people and communities around the world using novel new science and technologies.
This profile of Tej Kohli was updated on 26 February 2021 to reflect the response of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation in providing emergency food support and also funding for new vaccine development during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Foreword by Tej Kohli:
From 2006 I started to divest and to exit the portfolio of companies that I had founded since 1999. It meant that I could turn my attention to investing the proceeds into growth-stage technology businesses that could deliver a ‘double bottom line’ of profit plus human impact. I also started to build out the Zibel real estate portfolio which today provides a reliable income stream which supports my broader commercial and not-for-profit activities, and by 2019 I also found myself as Europe’s biggest individual esports investor.
I also started spending time expanding the work of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation, which has since helped tens of thousands of people all around the world, most notably in the field of corneal blindness. In doing this it quickly became clear that my objectives required multi-disciplinary collaboration. And it was only by telling the stories of our successes that we were able to surface the best opportunities for vital new partnerships.
It therefore became important to share more of my contemporary story and even to start engaging on a limited basis with the media. Eventually it was suggested that I should allow someone to help me to tell my story in the form of this blog. And so, what follows, whilst not quite ‘in my own words’, is a faithful and accurate capture of my story as I have lived and experienced it.
A Profile Of Tej Kohli
“Make your product in the United States, sell it in Asia and then spend your profits in Europe” says Tej Kohli. The 61-year-old investor and philanthropist is sitting in his newly constructed garage at his home in leafy Oxfordshire, England. Since 2006 the family home, which sits within several acres of immaculately landscaped gardens, has been home to Tej Kohli, his wife Wendy and their teenage son and daughter, aged 17 and 14.
Kohli stands by this philosophy. England is where he spends quality time with his family and enjoys driving his cars and eating at the best restaurants that are located around his plush offices on Berkeley Square in Mayfair. But Kohli has no direct investments in the United Kingdom, preferring instead the fast-growth markets of Asia and the emerging technology clusters in Europe.
Tej Kohli is a colourful character with a passion for problem solving. He is also full of surprises. During a tour of the gardens, an unassuming doorway cut into a hedge opens to reveal a 2-acre Japanese Garden. “We flew the designers and gardeners in from Japan” says Kohli. “They lived on site for nearly a year building the garden, and it takes a lot of effort to continually nurture and care for it”.
The ‘Wild West’ Days Of The Dot Com Boom
Kohli bought the Oxfordshire house after selling a series of companies that he had built up from his base in Costa Rica between 1999 and 2006. One such company was Estacion Tramar, a payment gateways specialist that Kohli sold in a high value trade sale. Estacion Tramar was one of a portfolio of companies that Tej Kohli had rapidly grown during the ‘Wild West’ days of the dot com boom thanks to market-leading proprietary fraud prevention technologies. Many of Kohli’s enterprises dominated the payment gateways business for ‘high risk’ industries.
“It was very profitable” says Kohli, “but also highly technical. Today people take a lot of online technologies for granted, but we were figuring them out, building them from the ground up and then competing in a constant arms race to remain the best. By the time that I left in 2006 the company employed hundreds of software developers around the world”.
“Today people take a lot of online technologies for granted, but we were figuring them out, building them from the ground up and then competing in a constant arms race to remain the best.”
Many of the Western technologists who made fortunes during the early days of the Internet have since become household names, but Tej Kohli is of a different cohort. He was part of a new breed of Indian-born entrepreneurs who quietly emerged as a new Western-style appreciation of entrepreneurship became more entrenched in the East. The cohort includes Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Khosla and Infosys co-Founder N.r. Narayana Murthy who both studied alongside Kohli at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
“Things have changed a bit more now” says Kohli. “A lot of the alumni from my days at IIT went on to build technology empires worth many billions, but then nobody really knows who they are even today. By contrast more recent IIT graduates such as Alphabet Inc CEO Sundar Pichai have become rockstars.”
Kohli’s attention is briefly caught by the pair of large black computer screens that he has set up in his ‘den’ that adjoins the new garage. Numbers flash and change on screen as Kohli assesses his stock portfolio. He points to one of the many numbers on the screens. “I’ve been heavily shorting Tesla recently” he continues, “I think Elon Musk is a great guy and it’s hard not to admire him, but the Tesla stock price has completely disconnected from any semblance of reality. Kohli claims to know nearly 3,000 stocks intimately. He trades daily in vertical options and short positions, and also writes a regular column on the Motley Fool website in which he provides his investment tips and insights.
A Passion For Performance
Surrounding Kohli is a multitude of cars that he keeps in his Oxfordshire garage, part of a worldwide collection that he has parked at different homes. Kohli’s bent is not classic or vintage cars. His interest is unashamedly about automotive prestige and performance.
Pride of place is a $3.8m Pagani Huayra, one of only 100 ever made. The six-litre twin-turbo charged 238 mph hyper car can do 0–60mph in 2.8 seconds. “The trouble with the Pagani is that everywhere I go I get mobbed” says Kohli, “It’s an absolutely exquisite piece of engineering, and people are fascinated by it, but it’s not the kind of car that you can just park and leave somewhere. It takes five minutes just to turn it on!”.
Kohli’s favourite car is his $2m Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse roadster, one of only 150 every made and the fastest roadster in the world with a top speed of 258 mph. “The Bugatti is literally the best that the internal combustion engine will ever get — a final glorious exposition at the pinnacle of engineering ingenuity. From now on cars like this will by hybrid or electric, so this is the last of its kind that we will ever see”.
Kohli notes that even with a Pagani and Bugatti, people show the most love for his Morgan Aero 8 Supersport. The British car marque has been hand built in Malvern since 1909 and has an idiosyncratic English style.
“I can’t blame people for falling in love with the classic Englishness of the Morgan” says Kohli. “It was always my dream to have a home in England and for my kids to be educated here. Britain has spent a lot of time criticising itself over the last few years, but people all too easily forget what an amazing country that this is. The people, the manners, the humour, the sense of mutual respect. The history and its unique influence on the culture.”
Kohli is also a fan of the quintessential Englishness of sartorial style. “I’m a colourful guy and coming from India gives you a lot more latitude in terms of what you can wear. I like to embrace that when I’m ordering a suit by being a bit more daring”. Kohli also admits that he wasn’t always so debonair: “My parents helped pay for a very cheap suit when I applied for my first job in India. Looking back, it was a terrible suit — but I still got the job!”.
An Early Affirmation
It was that first job aged 21 which gave Kohli an early affirmation of his desire to become an entrepreneur. He was recruited directly out of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur after studying Electrical Engineering and tasked with installing tachometers for Rabacomtel.
Whilst working on a project in a Toshiba factory, Kohli theorised that he could vastly improve the efficiency of the factory by installing a process controller. He sketched out a design and pitched it to the manager of the factory. “He threw me out” said Kohli. “But I was young and a bit arrogant, so I decided to try to meet the CEO of the company in Delhi”.
Kohli managed to find the CEO’s assistant who, after a lot of charming, told him the best way that he could contrive a meeting. “I remember the assistant to this day. Her name was Blossom. She helped me to get into the building and told me a time that I could walk in at the end of another meeting to meet the CEO. She gestured at the right moment, but when I walked in there were a lot of people there and I almost lost my nerve. But I gave my pitch.”
A week later the manager of the factory was brought in to hear Kohli’s pitch and begrudgingly agreed that it was a good idea. Kohli says that his design of a process controller resulted in a big order for his employer that helped to transform the company. But Kohli wasn’t around to see the installation of his design. In 1981 his mother, a Diplomat for the Indian Government, was posted to the United States. Kohli moved with her.
Prodigious Success In The USA
“The United States really nurtured my early entrepreneurial ambitions” says Kohli, who remains effusive about the American style of doing business. By his late twenties he had founded a prosperous real estate company in Beverley Hills. The company would acquire distressed and foreclosed multi-unit residential properties at cents on the dollar from failing Savings and Loans, bankruptcy trustees and the Veterans Association; and then re-sell them as individual units at near-to market rates, often to the sitting tenants.
“It was a beautiful business” says Kohli, and “it was the kind of deal-making enterprise that you can only do in the US. Everyone involved was completely focused on getting deals done. We had three floors filled with people in our LA headquarters and the atmosphere was electric.” Kohli says that at one stage the company owned or managed over 3,000 residential units.
“I was riding high in my mid twenties” says Kohli. “There are certain things that you can only achieve with the energy and arrogance of youth, but in retrospect I was also hubristic and I had started to put my trust into people that I should not have. My company was involved in more activities than I could keep good oversight of. As CEO I was culpable for decisions all over the West Coast, so when things went wrong I, quite rightly, had to answer for it.”
In 1994 Kohli’s companies were closed when it was discovered that in 1988 one company had become unwittingly embroiled in a novel scheme to transact real estate. What had seemed like a legitimate scheme developed without Kohli’s knowledge turned out to have toxic consequences.
“It’s not a period that I want to discuss because today I am embarrassed by it” says Kohli. “I allowed myself to be misled by older and more experienced people who I had trusted, and it took some years before it became clear what they had got me embroiled in. It was 1999 before I was able to start putting myself back together again and begin rebuilding my life from scratch.”
“The only positive” says Kohli, “is that over thirty years later I still draw from that early experience when I’m mentoring or giving advice to younger people. I tell them not to temper their ambitions but also to stay grounded. Sometimes knowing what not to do is actually more important than knowing what to do.”
Rebuilding In Costa Rica
The location for Tej Kohli’s comeback was the beautiful country of Costa Rica, where he also met his future wife Wendy. “Give me a place to stand and I will build an empire” says Kohli, “so when I found myself in Costa Rica, a global hub for technology and high-risk online technologies such as online gaming, dating and travel, my first instinct was to create a company that could ‘plug in’ to this hub”. It was 1999. The dot com boom was taking off. One year earlier the global sales of Amazon had been just $610m (compared to $280bn in 2019). PayPal had only just been launched by a few guys in Palo Alto.
“When I found myself in Costa Rica, a global hub for technology and high-risk online technologies such as online gaming, dating and travel, my first instinct was to create a company that could ‘plug in’ to this hub”
Kohli hired software developers in India and Costa Rica to develop sophisticated white-label online payment gateways. An early differentiator was Kohli’s proprietary fraud protection software, which proved an immediate hit with clients in high risk sectors worldwide. Soon Kohli was launching subsidiaries and spinning out new companies specialising in a range of online technologies and associated services. “In our best year as a Group we did over 600% year-on-year revenue growth” says Kohli, “We dominated our niches, and as the Internet economy ballooned, so did we”.
With its reach deep into high-risk online industries, in the early 2000’s Kohli’s Group created a new company to acquire and turn around failing online businesses, many of them being former clients. “Not all of our turnarounds were successful” says Kohli, “but those that were successful we were able to sell at a substantial profit many multiples higher than what we had paid”. Kohli adds that this diversification into the direct operation of a portfolio of e-commerce websites was not without its issues: “Some of the sites that we bought had been run into the ground and had earned themselves a toxic reputation. It took us time to make them work again. And in the interim my reputation got badly damaged in ways that I had not foreseen or predicted.”
From 2006 onwards Kohli started to divest the companies and subsidiaries of his Group during what he describes as “an early market peak”. He continued to receive earn out payments for a number of years later after starting a new life in the United Kingdom. “I was immensely proud of what we had built” says Kohli, “we worked hard and intensively, and the rewards were immense, but sometimes you’ve just got to know when to get out whilst you are still ahead”. Kohli flatly refuses as a matter of “longstanding policy” to disclose the exact sum that he accrued from the sale of his companies, or what his net worth is. Sources suggest that it is in the many hundreds of millions.
Certainly Kohli’s real estate holdings support his UHNWI status. Kohli’s Zibel Real Estate empire extends from mixed use schemes in East Asia through to residential towers in the UAU. He also owns a substantial residential portfolio in Europe, most notably in Berlin where Kohli says that his real estate values have increased by more than 50% in the last five years alone.
“After the sale of my company in 2006 real estate was a safe place to store wealth that I can hopefully one day pass on to my children. We started in East Asia and then Abu Dhabi, and then expanded the portfolio into Europe. I always say that you make your profit on real estate when you buy. That means having to search for deals. Because I’m investing using my own liquidity over very long time horizons, I can be open minded about what I invest in and the risk profile of the expected return. I rarely sell my real estate, for me it’s a passive store of wealth, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want good deals”.
Whilst Kohli is always happy to be analysing potential real estate deals, it occupies just a small portion of his daily routine. “It’s important to strike the right balance” says Kohli, “I don’t want to miss out on my kid’s lives because I’m too occupied building the legacy that I want to pass on to them”.
Esports And The Next Generation
Being a father is clearly very important to Tej Kohli. Kohli’s son was born in Costa Rica and his daughter was born at a hospital in Chelsea, London. Kohli says he is a very ‘hands on’ father. “I interfere in all aspects of their lives” he says with a proud glint in his eye, “I had my children quite late in life. They are the thing that I am most proud of. But being an older dad, I also feel like I have a lot more life experience to share with them than most, and I try to shepherd them to be good humans and to make the right choices. I am strict but I’m also a very affectionate father and I’m always hugging and kissing my children. Some people might think it’s strange for a man to show so much affection, but I say those people have got their priorities all wrong.”
Do the Kohli teenagers share Kohli’s entrepreneurial flare? “They have the Costa Rican from their mother and the Indian from me. But they’ve been educated in England. They are both very creative. My son has recently written his first play which he is hoping to produce at the Edinburgh festival, and every day my daughter impresses me in new ways”.
Tej Kohli became an unlikely role model for hundreds of thousands of young people in 2018 when he became Europe’s biggest individual esports investor. Kohli invested $100m of his own money into the Switzerland-based Rewired fund, with €50m of it allocated for esports investment. Since then Rewired’s Esports Venture Fund arm has invested €34m into Europe’s leading esports brand, Team Vitality. Kohli has no direct involvement in the team but says the investment turned him into Team Vitality’s biggest fan. It also turned him on to the opportunities for young entrepreneurs to succeed within esports.
“Knowing what to do in life is great, but so is knowing what not to do. After my rollercoaster of a life if I can use my own experiences to help younger people in esports to make the right choices, then I am all for that. I’m not just talking about esports entrepreneurs, many players experience success at an incredibly early age and believe me, because I know from my own younger days, that it is all to easy to get ahead of yourself and mess it all up when you are young!”
The €34m invested into Team Vitality has been injected across multiple rounds. The Paris-based esports team has used the investment to build an impressive new Paris headquarters called V’Hive, a 10,700 square foot facility with a storefront. Built on three floors, V.Hive features a streaming booth, gaming house, content production studio, a WebTV studio and offices. The Rewired.GG funding has also been used to expand Team Vitality into China and India. Team Vitality is also the only esports team with a permanent residency in France’s national stadium — the Stade de France.
Kohli expects to get a twenty-fold investment return in esports. “If you look at sports teams and then look at esports teams, and then compare the audience sizes and the current disparity in the monetisation of fans, then esports teams have huge value to be unlocked. Esports fan monetisation is currently around per fan $3.12 compared to around $50 for the NFL, which represents substantial upside as audiences are growing and all income sources are growing rapidly, which is the exact opposite to the current trends that we see in some ‘conventional’ sports. Some esports teams will be worth over a billion dollars in the next five years.”
Kohli is also cautious to add that “there is no magic esports fairy dust that creates value. I get a lot of esports ventures pitched to me that are conventional businesses but wrapped in an esports wrapper. It takes huge amounts of funding and intellectual capital to build an esports brand. What you will eventually see will be a few huge esports businesses hoovering up the monetization and then a very long tail of a great many smaller ventures competing for what’s left.”
Kohli points to his experience at a recent dinner in Marbella as evidence of the huge popularity of esports amongst younger generations: “There was a table of maybe 20 teenagers sat nearby. One of them came over and asked me if ‘we’ were going to win tonight. I said ‘of course’ and the table all cheered”.
Kohli spent the rest of the evening talking to the teenagers about esports, but confesses that he doesn’t play any active role in the team that Rewired.GG invested in: “I had to message the CEO of Rewired.GG to find out what esports tournament that the teenagers had been referring to. It turned out that our team didn’t win that night after all!”.
Exponential Human Impact
Esports is the latest in a long line of ventures that Kohli began backing and investing in since the sales of his companies. He says that his philosophy is to identify future growth trends and then get in early by investing heavily in return for a substantial stake. “For me it is all about exponential growth and positive human impact” says Kohli.
Kohli bases his investment philosophy on the book ‘Bold: How to go big, create wealth and impact the world’ by Peter H Diamandis. “I look for the ‘six D’s’ of exponential growth. “If someone pitches to me in terms of the ‘six D’s’ and how my investment will positively impact thousands of people’s lives, then that get’s my attention very quickly.”
Kohli is notoriously proud that since 2006 he has never relied on bank debt or third-party investors for his Kohli Ventures investment vehicle, which is managed on Kohli’s behalf by expert wealth managers in Europe and Asia.
In 2014 Kohli Ventures ventured back into the e-commerce sector by wholly acquiring dynacart, an online payments provider. The company has since grown exponentially as it has expanded into online marketplaces and B2B services, generating the greater proportion of Kohli’s present day income. “I take a lot of income from traditional investment assets and real estate, but dynacart has also turned into an amazing yield play far beyond my initial expectations. It’s an intelligence-driven enterprise that converts high levels of cash from a relatively lean worldwide operation” says Kohli.
“I also have an array of other investments through Kohli Ventures, some of which are doing very nicely indeed” says Kohli, “but I don’t publicise my connection to them because the focus should be on the founders at those companies, and having my name attached can be more of a hindrance”.
More recently Tej Kohli has invested $100m through Rewired, an investment fund operated by professional fund managers in Switzerland. Kohli explains: “The concept of Rewired aligned almost completely with what I believe in. I believe that artificial intelligence will change the world for the better and will be the biggest thing to ever happen to humanity. But to have real AI you need sensors that can interpret the world, convert it into data, process it and then, unlike the Internet, AI also needs to me able to take an action, in many cases a physical action. For that we will need smart robotics. I am fascinated by the technologies that will be needed in order to put AI into everything, and that is exactly where Rewired has placed its focus and why it caught my attention”.
Kohli lists off the investments of Rewired that he isn’t allowed to talk about but is visibly excited by. The Rewired fund insists on keeping the majority of its investments private except for a handful of case studies on its website. “These companies are in a technological arms race that reminds me of the early days building my own company in Costa Rica. We’re talking rooms of software developers and robotics engineers, sometimes in quite unlikely locations. Many of them have the potential to really change the world, but because of that they’re also extremely guarded about maintaining their privacy and secrecy”. Perhaps an indicator of Kohli’s optimism for his technology investments are his predictions for artificial intelligence. In 2019 he told Spears magazine he believed that AI will be worth $150 trillion.
“I am fascinated by the technologies that will be needed in order to put AI into everything, and that is exactly where Rewired has placed its focus”
Another of Kohli’s investments is Detraxi, a US-based biotechnology company that had developed a proprietary solution. In 2019 Tej Kohli told BusinessInsider that he believed his children would live to be between 125 and 150 years old thanks to rapid advances in biotechnology, saying “Look at what’s happened in the last 20 years because of advances in medicine — it is now the norm to live to 80 or 85 years. If you had said that to my dad’s generation, he would not have believed you. He died when he was 58”.
Kohli acquired Detraxi in 2015 in a distressed state. “The founder had run up a lot of debt and the company still had a long way to go to get the required FDA approvals. We bought the company outright, got rid of the debt and have been funding its progress ever since”. Kohli refuses to be drawn on the applications of the Detraxi technology for fear of compromising future patent applications, but his website says that Detraxi is working across fluid replacement, diagnostics, transplantation and regenerative medicine.
The Detraxi biotech has undergone several clinical studies and is currently undergoing pre-clinical trials at Johns Hopkins University. “We’re expecting to licence the technology in China” says Kohli, “China has some very specific health challenges to overcome. Less than 1% of China’s population are donating blood, which falls far below the rate of 1% to 3% that is needed to meet demand. Countries like China are going to need a biotech solution, and that’s one of the reasons why Chinese companies are interested in Detraxi”.
Kohli’s humanitarian hopes for his investment in Detraxi belies the true extent of his philanthropy. With wife Wendy, in 2005 Kohli founded the Tej Kohli Foundation. “We knew that the sale of my company was imminent, and we wanted to have something new to put all of our focus and our energies into” says Kohli.
The Tej Kohli Foundation’s first project provided practical and financial support to a group of disabled children in Costa Rica. “What that early experience taught us, was the difference that seemingly small interventions can make in the lives of young people and their families” says Kohli.
In the same year, Wendy Kohli launched the Foundation’s ‘FundaKohli’ project by establishing free canteens in Costa Rica. Every weekday for fifteen years since, FundaKohli canteens have fed hundreds of underprivileged children for free, ensuring that they have access to the vital nutrition and sustenance that they need to thrive. “We soon found that mothers and even entire families were coming in too, and we never turn anyone away” says Kohli.
This ethos of grassroots philanthropy and never turning anyone away has become a cornerstone of the Tej Kohli approach. A little under fifteen years since it set out to support disabled young people, in 2019 the Tej Kohli Foundation launched its ‘Future Bionics’ program in the United Kingdom. The program funds 3D-printed bionic arms for young people who are living with limb difference. The first arm was delivered to its 10-year-old recipient just in time for Christmas, with 9 more bionic arms now delivered or soon going into production. “When we started the Future Bionics project it seemed like the perfect combination of using new technology and helping people” says Kohli.
For some of the young recipients, their bionic arm is just about aesthetics and confidence. For others is a vital necessity that will transform every aspect of their lives. One recipient of a bionic arm from the Tej Kohli Foundation is an eight-year-old who lost both of her arms and legs to meningitis, and prior to that had suffered the most severe forms of abuse from a family member. “That girl has since been adopted and the family member is in prison, but as the father of a daughter, when I hear stories like that it tears my heart out.”
Throughout 2020 the Tej Kohli Foundation has expanded its #FutureBionics programme to provide 3D printed bionic arms to many disabled young people in the United Kingdom. A series of videos profiling some of the young people who have received bionic arms is available on the Tej Kohli Foundation YouTube channel, including the a YouTube mini-series following the journey of aspiring musical theatre actress Gracie McGonigal as she becomes ‘bionic’:
Eradicating Corneal Blindness
Kohli is surprisingly emotive for someone of his stature. His passion for life and his seemingly boundless energy do not let up for even a moment. He breaks off to take a call from one of his children. “He is a very passionate guy but he is also so loving and caring” says Kohli’s wife Wendy, “he can be quite demanding, and he sets his standards very high, but it’s all because he wants to get the best from everyone around him without having to make compromises”. Wendy says Kohli has also mellowed in recent years and attributes this to his children and to his philanthropic activities.
In 2010 the Tej Kohli Foundation funded donor corneal transplants at Niramaya Hospital in India. Tej was present when the recipient, a 50-year-old man who had been blind for decades, had his bandages removed and was able to see his wife and grown up children for the first time. “It was a life changing moment for him and for me” says Kohli, “at that moment I knew that eliminating corneal blindness, or what we should probably call ‘poverty blindness’, was my calling”.
Ninety per cent of those affected by blindness or severe visual impairment live in the poorest countries in the world according to the World Health Organisation. 75% of corneal disease is curable, but a shortage of donors, and the expense of surgery and medications, make it entirely inaccessible in the underserved and remote rural communities where the poorest people live. This leads to poverty blindness: individuals who live with blindness for years or decades because they cannot afford the procedure needed to get it fixed.
Tackling poverty blindness has become Kohli’s modus operandi. “The challenge with corneal blindness, is that because it is not life threatening, it attracts less attention than some other global health issues and is less of a cause célèbre. But the social and economic impact of restoring someone’s vision is immense. It changes families forever”.
By 2015 Kohli was funding so many corneal transplant operations that a bigger facility was needed. The Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in Hyderabad opened that year. By November 2019 it had welcomed more than 223,404 outpatients and completed more than 43,255 surgeries.
“We’ve welcomed tens of thousands of patients but there is one girl who really stands out for me” says Kohli. “I was visiting the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute with my family and my daughter was only ten years old at the time. There was another ten-year-old girl there with her mother, and her vision was so poor that she was nearly blind. We were still there a couple of days later after she had received her corneal transplant. She came up to me and gave me a massive hug and I lifted her up. I couldn’t help thinking how I would feel if this was my daughter, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about how many others like her were still out there and that I could help them.”
Tej Kohli is a proponent of the Bill and Melinda Gates approach to philanthropy. “The way that they define very specific objectives and then intensively target their resources into grassroots activities and scientific innovations is a big source of inspiration for me” says Kohli, “what they have achieved in eliminating Polio is beyond amazing”. The way that Bill Gates has transitioned from entrepreneur to philanthropist is also a source of inspiration for Kohli: “He achieved so much in business and then has used that success to achieve so much for others”. Kohli is also an admirer of Michael Milken, who has funded medical research through the Milken Family Foundation. In 2004 Fortune Magazine called Milken ‘The Man Who Changed Medicine’.
Tej Kohli’s ambition is to eradicate suffering from the world by ending “completely needless” corneal blindness in poor and underserved communities. The ultimate goal for Kohli is what he calls a “universal solution” for ending corneal blindness. “You can’t eliminate corneal blindness by relying on transplantation surgery. Worldwide less than one in seventy people who need a corneal transplant will receive one each year. It’s too expensive, too complex and too inaccessible for the majority of those with visual impairment”. Kohli is pursuing a universal solution that is “accessible, scalable and affordable” and which can be applied easily by ophthalmologists without the need for surgeons or operating theatres.
For years Kohli’s ‘Applied Research’ program at the Tej Kohli Foundation has been working on a solution. The Foundation has had partnerships with Harvard, Moorfields Eye Hospital and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. In early 2020 it announced that it had taken major scientific strides forward. “We started by trying to synthesis cornea through yeast, and then using peptides” says Kohli, “but they came with a high rate of rejection. What we have now is a regenerative solution, which in theory, could be applied using a syringe and cause the cornea to repair itself”. Kohli believes that, subject to regulatory approvals, this ‘universal solution’ is now “years rather than decades” away and that it could be “game-changing”.
Combating Holiday Hunger
The not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation is unapologetic about its continuing pivot toward the development of large-scale solutions “for the masses”. Kohli believes that channelling his wealth into these permanent solutions to prevent and cure major human challenges will bring greater improvement to the world than making one-to-one interventions to cure and alleviate symptoms.
But that is not to say that the genesis of the not-for-profit Foundation — feeding thousands of young children in Costa Rica — has been forgotten entirely. The ‘Funda Kolhi’ project continues to feed children every day in Costa Rica, and in 2020 Tej Kohli instigated a new project to tackle holiday hunger amongst children in the United Kingdom.
“We spent a lot of time trying to understand the issue of holiday hunger and what we might do to join the alliance of organisations who are looking to eliminate it. What we found were lots of grassroots community projects making interventions to prevent holiday hunger within their local area. Then the Coronavirus pandemic happened, thousands of people lost their jobs and the most vulnerable children who normally relied on free school meals for daily nutrition were suddenly stuck at home for months and facing hunger.”
Kohli scrambled to accelerate his plans for tackling holiday hunger and used them to create a program to provide emergency food aid to thousands of families as well as donating much-needed emergency funding to The Salvation Army. Such was the impact of the Tej Kohli Foundation’s provision of emergency weekly food parcels to local families, that is was profiled by BBC News at the height of the coronavirus lockdown in the UK:
“In this case emergency interventions were crucial” says Kohli, “but longer term the focus of the Tej Kohli Foundation is now going to be about helping the many grassroots groups who emerged to fight hunger in their local communities during COVID-19 to become sustainable in terms of finances, manpower and resources, so they can use their firepower to tackle holiday hunger in and when the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic”.
62-year-old Kohli’s has one piece of advice that he says had guided his career over the last two decades and which he encourages others to consider:
“Sometimes knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do. But whatever you do, don’t forget that success is not final, and failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Postface by Tej Kohli:
The Tej Kohli Foundation has changed many thousands of lives and the grassroots projects that it funds continue to make a big difference every day. The Tej Kohli Cornea Institute has cured tens of thousands of the world’s poorest people of blindness. The Foundation’s Future Bionics program is providing bionic limbs to young people in the UK. The ‘FundaKohli’ project has fed hundreds of children in Costa Rica every weekday since 2005.
But perhaps of greater importance are the programs that the Tej Kohli Foundation is supporting to find scientific and technological solutions at a global scale. Tej Kohli Foundation Applied Research has made incredible inroads toward the launch of a biosynthetic ‘universal solution’ that could end a big proportion of corneal blindness in poor communities. The Foundation’s ‘2035’ project is also incubating new projects to help achieve this by 2035.
The $2m Tej Kohli Cornea Program at Mass Eye and Ear, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, is developing nano-string technologies to aid the early detection of corneal disease; and has already provided seed funding to a research projects focused on corneal endothelial cell loss and on the use novel drugs released by contact lenses to treat ocular surface pain.
I am committed to the funding all of these projects. But what is equally important is that we are able to share the stories of their success. Only by sharing stories can we bring together experts from different fields to develop novel solutions that are relevant in poor communities worldwide.