Tej Kohli was born in Delhi, India in 1958, the son of a journalist father and a diplomat mother. In 1980 he graduated in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. In 1998 he met wife Wendy in Costa Rica and decided to stay until 2006, when the Kohli family moved to the United Kingdom. Today he is also a father to two teenagers, a car enthusiast and a ballroom dancer.
In 1999 Tej Kohli started an online payment gateways company in Costa Rica that dominated high-risk sectors such as gaming, dating and travel because of its proprietary fraud protection software. The company grew quickly by specialising in a wide array of associated services; and later also acquired and turned around a number of distressed online gaming properties.
Tej sold the company in 2006 and turned his focus to growing his ‘Zibel’ real estate portfolio in the UAE, Europe, India and South East Asia. The Kohli family also moved to a new family home in the United Kingdom, where Tej also became a prolific investor into innovative growth-stage technology ventures focused on artificial intelligence, robotics and genomics.
Alongside his wife Wendy, Tej co-founded the Tej Kohli Foundation in 2005. The Foundation focuses on developing solutions to major global health challenges. Under the guidance of Wendy and Tej Kohli, the Foundation has become a global hub for interdisciplinary innovation as part of a global mission to eliminate needless corneal blindness worldwide by 2035. The Tej Kohli Foundation also supports projects such as the provision of fully funded 3D-printed bionic limbs to young people with limb difference, as well as funding other social projects
Blindness is heavily impacted by poverty. The World Health Organisation says that 14 million of the 39 million people on the planet who are blind live in India. 12.7 million people are currently waiting for a cornea transplant worldwide. 6 million of them are in India.
In 2010 the Tej Kohli Foundation funded its first donor cornea implants at Niramaya Hospital. Tej and Wendy Kohli were both present when a 50-year-old patient had his bandages removed after a corneal transplant and saw his wife and grown up children for the first time. Tej and Wendy immediately decided that eliminating corneal blindness would be their calling.
After funding corneal transplants at Niramaya Hospital for five years, in 2015 the Tej Kohli Foundation substantially expanded its efforts to tackle corneal blindness in poor and underserved communities with the ambitious launch the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, a World Health Organization collaborating centre. Between January 2016 and November 2019 the Institute welcomed more than 223,404 outpatients and completed more than 43,255 surgical procedures, largely for free.
Corneal transplants require donor or synthetic cornea, which are applied using sutures during highly invasive surgery. Given the costs and complications of this surgical approach, it is not possible to ‘eliminate’ curable corneal blindness in this way. Therefore, Tej Kohli has long been advocating for and supporting research toward a ‘universal treatment’.
The Tej Kohli Foundation’ has been pursuing this ‘universal treatment’ for corneal blindness through it’s ‘Applied Research’ program, a longstanding scientific collaboration between researchers in Montreal Canada, and Moorfields Eye Hospital, UK. Early efforts focused on synthesising synthetic cornea, first from yeast and then from peptides. Then in January 2020 the ‘Applied Research’ program announced that it had moved one step closer in its mission to invest an affordable, accessible and scalable universal cure for corneal blindness through the regeneration of corneal tissue using an innovative proprietary technology.
The Tej Kohli Foundation aspires to be a global hub for multi-disciplinary innovation. During 2019 Tej Kohli approved an initial donation of $2m to fund the Tej Kohli Cornea Program at Massachusetts Eye And Ear in Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, to accelerate innovative and collaborative research to achieve unprecedented new breakthroughs in corneal disease. Projects include the development of a ‘GelCORE’ product to eliminate the need for sutures in corneal transplants, as well as the development of a nano-string technology to aid the early diagnosis of infections that can cause blindness.
Tej Kohli is a strong believer in the power of technology to improve human life, and in late 2019 he was proud to launch the Tej Kohli Foundation’s first UK project: the ‘Future Bionics’ program. The program funds the purchase and fitting of 3D-printed bionic ‘Hero Arms’ for young people with limb difference in the UK; and highlights how technology can substantially improve the lives and confidence of younger people living with disabilities.
The programme launched in late 2019 at the Open Bionics headquarters in Bristol, United Kingdom, where Wendy and Tej Kohli met with 14-year-old Open Bionics ambassador and motivational speaker Tilly Lockey alongside the first two recipients of the program. Tek Kohli instigated the Future Bionics program as it epitomises that the Tej Kohli Foundation is about: using new innovations to improve individual lives and prospects.
Tej and Wendy Kohli founded their first major philanthropic project in Costa Rica. The ‘FundaKohli’ program has fed hundreds of children every week in its free soup kitchens every weekday since 2005. The enduring program represents Tej’s commitment to continue to give back to the country where he met Wendy and enjoyed his initial business success.
The ‘FundaKohli’ program ensures that hundreds of families and children have access to vital nutrition and sustenance. It also provides them with other support structures and facilities so that underprivileged families can get the little extra help they need to flourish.
Wendy and Tej Kohli have not lived in Costa Rica since 2006, however their commitment to the FundaKohli project and the families that it supports every single day will always endure.
When Wendy and Tej Kohli set up the Tej Kohli Foundation in 2005, a core value and objective was to focus on grassroots philanthropy rather than simply donating money to charities. In 2019 this philosophy extended to garnering international attention for major global health issues that are not well served, when Wendy and Tej Kohli authorised the Foundation’s ‘Impact Initiatives’ program to commission a short documentary film to highlight the plight of children in India living with Xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic condition.
Up to one in 370 Indians suffer from the condition, which forces many to live their entire life in the shadows. Young people with XP face significant social stigma, which combined with the physical effects of the condition, including corneal blindness, and the absence of clinical knowledge and specialist care services in their communities, robs them of their prospects.
The ‘Impact Initiative’ sought to highlight the plight of India’s XP children through a series of high profile collaborations. Working with internationally renowned photographer Simon Townsley and the Global Health section of The Telegraph, the Tej Kohli Foundation brought the realities of life of Indian children with XP visibly to the fore in a major photographic study and news feature. The independent documentary short about XP, which is called SeeAgainFilm.com, premiered at the 2020 Manchester International Film Festival and is now touring film festivals worldwide to raise awareness of XP in India in the global community.
Tej Kohli believes in biotech solutions to some of the world’s greatest public health challenges, and that joining the technological frontiers of AI and biotech can substantially improve human life. However the development of new and early stage biotechnologies requires a very high appetite for risk and lots of patience.
Because of his long-term investment horizon and a ‘return on investment’ calculus that gives equal weighting to financial return and humanitarian return, as a private investor through Kohli Ventures, Tej is able to provide long term funding commitments to biotech ventures that would not fall within the typical investment criteria of institutional investors.
Tej is the lead backer of Detraxi, a US-based company that plans to save millions of lives worldwide by developing its proprietary biotechnology solution for a range of global health challenges. Detraxi is working in collaboration with some of the worlds most talented and respected scientists across fluid replacement, diagnostics, transplantation and regenerative medicine. The Detraxi biotechnology has already undergone several clinical studies. It is currently undergoing pre-clinical trials at Johns Hopkins University.
NB: Detraxi is a commercial investment that is not connected to the Tej Kohli Foundation.
Focusing on investing in commercial ventures with a social impact, in 2005 Tej Kohli made a significant funding commitment through Kohli Ventures to an emerging solar products and renewable energy company based in South East Asia. The company focused on off-grid solar products which can have a transformational social impact by clean and renewable bringing devolved power generation capabilities into thousands of poor homes in rural India.
At the time of the investment over 50,000 solar installations had already taken place in India, and the business planned to expand the established company substantially to serve remote and rural communities worldwide, including in many African states where the company had strong commercial ties, with a $500m 5-year revenue target. Tej Kohli exited the investment in 2017.
NB: This renewable energy investment was not connected to the Tej Kohli Foundation.
Tej Kohli is an advocate of a unique form of venture philanthropy as a vehicle for boosting development and prosperity throughout the Global South. Artificial intelligence is already transforming developing countries, and the United Nations ‘AI for Good’ campaign is fostering dialogue amongst policy makers on the beneficial use of technology for humanitarian work.
Tej Kohli believes that technology investors must also have a seat at the table, and since 2018 has made two substantial investments into Rewired, a robotics-focused venture studio with a humanitarian bent. Rewired is working at the vanguard of machine perception and the ability of robots to understand and interpret the physical world. Companies within the Rewired portfolio are also working on a technological solution to substantially increase the proportion of plastics that are viable for recycling; the development of affordable prosthetics, and portable machines designed to improve manufacturing processes.
NB: these are commercial investments that are not connected to the Tej Kohli Foundation.