Life Story: Tej Kohli Is A Sustainable Development Pioneer

Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation co-founder Tej Kohli

Foreword by Tej Kohli:

From 2006 I started to divest and to exit the portfolio of companies that I had founded and grown since 1999. This major liquidity event was a milestone moment for me that enabled me to change my life focus almost entirely. I launched Kohli Ventures and started investing into three new areas.

A Passion For Problem Solving

“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.

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.

A New Breed Of Indian Entrepreneur

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 very early new breed of Indian-born entrepreneurs who quietly emerged as a new vogue for Western-style entrepreneurship became more entrenched in the East.

Unashamedly Focused On Performance

Kohli’s passion is fighting blindness through his constellation of eponymous charities. He talks often about ‘turbo-charing’ economic development by curing blindness in the world’s poorest communities. The turn of phrase is no coincidence: Tej Kohli is also a committed petrol head.

Tej Kohli’s Pagani Huayra

Idiosyncratic English Style

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.

Tej Kohli at home with his Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse

Early Affirmations As An Entrepreneur

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.

Prodigious Early Success…And Failure

“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.

After rebuilding himself Tej Kohli is now using his success to help rebuild others

Making A Comeback

The location for Tej Kohli’s comeback was the beautiful country of Costa Rica, where he also met Wendy, the mother of his children. “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 high-risk online technologies, my first instinct was to create a company that could ‘plug in’ to this hub”.

Diversification And Divestment

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”.

Zibel Real Estate

Certainly Kohli’s real estate holdings support his HNWI 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.

Kohli Ventures

2006 is also when Kohli launched his investment vehicle: Kohli Ventures, which focuses on control-orientated equity investments in the fields of AI, robotics and biotech. Kohli Ventures also makes private market investments into pre-IPO technology, IP and blockchain companies.

$100m Deep Tech Investment

In 2019 Tej Kohli invested $100m through Rewired, an investment fund in Switzerland that focused on exponential growth technologies. 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”.

World Changing Biotechnology

In 2019 Tej Kohli told BusinessInsider that he believed his children would live to be between 125 and 150 years old thanks to advances in biotech: “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”.

Tej Kohli The Philanthropist

But it is not Kohli’s conglomeration of investments and business interests that keep his days occupied, but his not-for-profit projects, which are substantial. In 2005 Kohli founded the Tej Kohli Foundation with an inaugural project to 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.

Children eating at a free canteen in Costa Rica, funded by the Tej Kohli Foundation

#FutureBionics

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.

10-year-old Jacob was the first to receive a 3D-printed bionic arm from the Tej Kohli Foundation
The Tej Kohli Foundation has created a YouTube mini series about ‘bionic’ actress Gracie McGonigal.

Fighting Poverty By Curing 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 one colleague who knows Kohli well, “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”.

A corneal transplant operation at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in Hyderabad

The Tej Kohli Cornea Institute

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. Between its launch in 2015 and its closure at the end of 2019, the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute welcomed more than 223,404 outpatients and completed more than 43,255 surgeries to cure blindness.

Wendy and Tej Kohli with their children at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in Hyderabad

Research To End Needless Blindness

For a long time the ultimate goal for Kohli has been what he calls a “universal solution” for ending some of the more complex forms of needless blindness. “When it comes to corneal blindness, less than one in seventy people who need a cornea transplant will receive one each year. It’s too expensive, too complex and too inaccessible” says Kohli.

A researcher in Canada conducts tests for the Tej Kohli Foundation Applied Research program

The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation

In early 2021 Tej Kohli announced an ambitious new project that will seek to cure between 300,000 and 500,000 people of cataract blindness in the world’s poorest communities. Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide, accounting for half of the world’s 40 million blind; with the majority of the world’s 20 million cataract blind living in the developing world.

A cataract patient at a Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation microsurgical outreach camp.
Patients including a Buddhist nun await screening and surgery for cataracts at a Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation microsurgical outreach camp in Nepal.
Tej Kohli and Dr Sanduk Ruit with 33 patients cured at a surgical outreach camp in Nepal.
Tej Kohli and Dr Sanduk Ruit remove bandages from patients who have been cured of blindness at a Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation camp in Nepal.
Tej Kohli and Dr Sanduk Ruit with patients cured at a surgical camp in Bhutan.
Tej Kohli with patients cured of blindness at a surgical camp in Bhutan.
Tej Kohli hugs a patient cured of blindness by the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation in Bhutan.
Tej Kohli Foundation volunteers working with The Salvation Army prepare emergency food supplies for local families who have been adversely affected by Coronavirus.
Volunteers in Southall, UK, prepare to deliver emergency food support as part of the Tej Kohli Foundation’s YouCubeBox.com initiative.
Tej Kohli Foundation Future Bionics recipient shows off his new bionic arm to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Launch of the Tej Kohli Foundation Future Bionics program.
A young patient at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute after receiving free treatment for visual impairment.
A brother and sister who suffer Xeroderma pigmentosum received treatment at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute.
The Tej Kohli Cornea Institute is adapt at taking treatment to poor and remote rural areas.
A corneal transplant operation at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute.
Donor cornea in the eye bank at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute
The Tej Kohli Cornea Institute at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India.
The cooking team at a FundaKohli free canteen for children and families in Costa Rica.
Families eating at a FundaKohli free canteen in Costa Rica, which is open daily.
Children eating at a FundaKohli canteen in Costa Rica.
The FundaKohli canteen helps young people and families in Costa Rica to access daily nutrition.
Scientists working on the Tej Kohli Cornea Program in Boston, USA.
Researchers working at the Tej Kohli Cornea Program in Boston, USA.
Researchers working on the Tej Kohli Foundation’s Applied Research program in Montreal, Canada.
Researchers at Tej Kohli Foundation Applied Research developing a biosynthetic corneal filler.

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Tej Kohli

Tej Kohli

Tej Kohli is a technologist and investor who is best known for curing blindness in the developing world as co-founder of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation