Tej Kohli’s latest project is on track to cure 500,000 of blindness in the developing world by 2030 as part of the #2030InSight mission to achieve the #1 UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty everywhere.
This profile was updated on 20 June 2022 to reflect the latest #2030InSight achievements of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation.
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.
The first was growth-stage ventures in the fields of AI, robotics, biotech, and esports. The second was private market investments into technology, IP and blockchain companies that were heading toward IPO. I also launched my Zibel Real Estate portfolio in Europe and the Middle East.
It was also the moment that I took up the mantle of becoming more ambitious as a philanthropist. I had already been involved in grassroots charity projects for a number of years, but 2006 was when I started expanding the work of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation, which has since helped hundreds of thousands of people all around the world, most notably by curing blindness.
In doing all of this it quickly became clear that it was only by telling and sharing stories that my teams we were able to surface the best new opportunities. An example of one such opportunity surfaced in 2021 when I combined my resources with Nepalese ‘God of Sight’ Dr Sanduk Ruit.
Together Dr Ruit and I share a passion for combating all forms of needless blindness that arise from poverty and inequality, and today we are united in a joint mission to screen at least 1,000,000 patients and to cure 300,000 to 500,000 people of blindness in the developing world by 2030.
With strong empirical evidence showing that the socio-economic return of curing blindness can be as much as 1,500% of the cost of surgery during the first post-operative year, I strongly believe that curing blindness is by far the best catalyst for reducing extreme poverty quickly and effectively.
Affirmations of the importance of sharing stories is why I have allowed someone to help me to tell my story here, in this blog post on Medium.
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 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.
Kohli stands by this philosophy. England is where he spends quality time with his family and enjoys driving his cars and eating at the many restaurants located near to his plush Mayfair offices. But Kohli has no direct investments in the United Kingdom, preferring instead the fast-growth markets of Asia.
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 that garden”.
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.
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 fraud prevention technologies. Kohli’s enterprises had dominated the payment gateways business for ‘high risk’ industries across the globe.
“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 ahead. By the time that I left in 2006 the company employed hundreds of software developers in India and in Costa Rica”.
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.
“Things have changed a bit more now” says Kohli. “A lot of the alumni from my student days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in India went on to build technology empires worth billions, but nobody even knows their names. By contrast more recent IIT graduates such as Alphabet Inc CEO Sundar Pichai have become household names the world over.”
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.
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.
Kohli Oxfordshire home is also the location of his famous ‘car tank’. Kohli’s bent is not classic or vintage cars. His interest is unashamedly about automotive prestige and performance, and 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 be hybrid or electric, so this is the last of its kind that we will ever see”.
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.
“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 being Asian 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 and colourful”. 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!”.
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.
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. 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 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.
“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 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 and as CEO I was culpable for decisions, so when things went wrong — very badly wrong — I, quite rightly, had to answer for it.”
In 1994 Kohli’s companies were closed when it was discovered that in 1988 he had become embroiled in a novel scheme to transact real estate. What had seemed at the time like a legitimate investment scheme turned out to have toxic and profound consequences for Kohli, who was prosecuted.
“It’s not a period that I like to discuss” says Kohli. “I lost everything and it was 1999 before I could start rebuilding my life again from scratch.”
“The only positive” says Kohli, “is that over thirty years later I still draw from that early experience of failure when I’m 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.”
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”.
It was 1999. The dot com boom was reaching new heights. Just 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.
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 the ‘high risk’ sectors worldwide.
Soon Kohli was launching subsidiaries and spinning out new companies specialising in 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 boomed, so did we”.
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”.
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 during that process my reputation got badly damaged forever in ways that I had not anticipated.”
From 2006 Kohli started to sell his companies during what he describes as “an early market peak”. He continued to receive earn out payments for a number of years after starting a brand new life in the United Kingdom.
“I was immensely proud of what we had built” says Kohli, “we worked hard and the rewards were immense, but sometimes you’ve just got 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 hundreds of millions.
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.
“After the sale of my companies in 2006 real estate was a safe place to store wealth that I can hopefully one day pass on to my children. I always say that you make your profit on real estate when you buy. That means having to search for deals. I’m investing using my own liquidity over very long time horizons, so I can be very 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”.
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.
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’ then that will get 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. 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. “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 global 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”.
$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”.
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 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 a massive $150 trillion.
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”.
One of Kohli’s biotech investments is Detraxi, a US-based biotechnology company that has developed a proprietary solution. Kohli Ventures acquired Detraxi in 2015 in a distressed state. “We bought the company outright, got rid of its debt and have been funding its progress ever since”.
Despite what he refers to as a “heavy” investment in Detraxi, Kohli refuses to be drawn on the applications of its technology for fear of compromising future patent applications. The Detraxi website says that it is working across fluid replacement, diagnostics, transplantation and regenerative medicine.
In April 2021 Kohli told CityAM that his new ambition for Kohli Ventures was to invest in the “second wave of CRISPR-Cas9” investment opportunities by backing ventures that were planning to use the CRISPR ‘genetic scissors’ to create life-changing new products and treatments.
“We will see a Cambrian explosion in the use of CRISPR-Cas9 as the technology is perfected and demonetised in such a way that is becomes very easy for entrepreneurs and business leaders to intuitively ‘plug in’ to and embrace it to build new applications, much like they do the Internet” Kohli told CityAM. “But the biggest returns will be for those who can get in early.”
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.
In that same year, 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.”
The Tej Kohli Foundation has expanded its #FutureBionics programme to provide 3D printed bionic arms to many disabled young people in the United Kingdom ever since; and a series of videos profiling the young people who have received bionic arms is on the Tej Kohli Foundation YouTube channel:
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”.
This ‘no compromises’ approach is reflected in the constellation of charities that Kohli has founded to combat needless blindness. In 2010 the Tej Kohli Foundation funded its first cornea 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”.
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.
“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 has the means to 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’.
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.
In pursing a more ‘universal’ solution the Tej Kohli Foundation has had partnerships with Harvard, Moorfields Eye Hospital and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. Kohli believes that a ‘universal solution’ to complex problems such as corneal blindness could now be “years rather than decades away”.
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.
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation empowers individuals and families within remote and impoverished communities in the developing world. By 2030 Kohli hopes to provide free treatment interventions to cure between 300,000 and 500,000 people of cataract blindness and severe visual impairment.
“The goals of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation are fully aligned with the objectives of the #2030InSight strategic plan to end avoidable sight loss worldwide whilst making a major contribution to the #1 United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to end poverty” says Kohli. “Extreme poverty and needless blindness are a cause and also a function of one another. The only way to break the cycle is by making direct large-scale interventions”.
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation has spent its inaugural year tackling blindness and its associated social and economic issues in low-income countries such as Nepal, where it has been supporting communities by making high-volume grassroots interventions to cure blindness.
“When it comes to our achievements, our numbers speak for themselves” says Kohli. Within one year of the launch the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation has screened 128,094 patients and cured 13,659 of blindness.
“We have made great strides of progress and now we are confidently reaching out even deeper into poor, marginalised and disenfranchised communities.” says Kohli. “But there is also still a lot of work to do as we progress further with our mission and accelerate our efforts worldwide.”
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation has plans to quickly globalise and despatch its outreach teams on missions to deliver free cataract surgeries in territories including Nepal, Northern India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, North Korea, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Lebanon and Syria.
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation will measure the social and economic impact of curing blindness in each region visited to support a longer-term goal of establishing and funding a network of permanent community eye hospitals by training local technicians to contribute toward the IAPB #2030InSight plan.
Kohli points out that it’s not easy making the kind of large-scale interventions that the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation has mastered, and that often the people most in need are the ones that conventional charities and NGOs do not reach.
“I think when you are dealing with complex global projects like the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation, you just have to keep moving forward all the time. We try to never forget that success is not final and failure is not fatal. Ultimately it is having the courage to continue that counts.”
Tej Kohli regularly shares his thoughts and wisdom on Medium and on Twitter using the hashtag #TejTalks. His official website can be found at http://www.tejkohli.com. Tej Kohli’s blog is #TejTalks and he is also the author of Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook.