The Tej Kohli Story
Tej Kohli is an investor and philanthropist who with wife Wendy Kohli created the Tej Kohli Foundation in 2005. The Foundation focuses on developing solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making direct interventions that transform lives. Under Tej’s guidance the Foundation has become a global hub for interdisciplinary innovation as part of a global mission to eliminate needless corneal blindness worldwide by 2035.
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. His first and only ‘job’ was installing tachometers for a company in Delhi, where he designed and then sold an innovative new process controller for a major manufacturer. The contract transformed the prospects of his employer and gave Tej a first taste of his entrepreneurial appetite. Tej then joined his mother when she was posted to the USA.
By the late 1980’s Tej Kohli was a property investor in California and founded a company specialising in the discounted bulk purchase of foreclosed multi-unit real estate assets from S&L’s, bankruptcy trustees, HUD and the Veterans Association at cents on the dollar. Hundreds of employees at the company’s Beverley Hills headquarters specialised in rapidly transacting the re-sale of thousands of the individual units at market rates. The company also acquired a mortgage bank that provided mortgages funded by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
In a major setback for Tej, his prodigious early success came to an abrupt end in a Federal Court, when he admitted to unwittingly ‘aiding and abetting’ mail fraud in 1988 when he was aged 28. Tej had received wire payments for the seemingly legitimate sale of some of his residential units, whose sale had been transacted using a novel mechanism by a distant third party. Tej had received payment for each sale from funds which, unbeknown to Tej at the time, the third party had obtained fraudulently from financial institutions. Tej unwittingly found himself on the wrong side of the law as the passive recipient of ‘ill-gotten-gains’.
After serving a short sentence at the minimum security Nellis Military Camp in Nevada, in 1998 Tej left the United States and met his future wife Wendy in Costa Rica, where he decided to stay. Determined to rebuild himself and not to be outdone or defined by a single mistake made in his twenties, in 1999 Tej founded an online payments company in Costa Rica that quickly became known worldwide for its market-leading fraud protection software.
The company grew quickly by specialising in payment gateways and a wide array of associated services for clients in high-risk sectors such as gaming, dating and travel; and later also diversified into the acquisition, turnaround and sale of distressed online gaming properties. By 2006 the company employed an army of software developers amongst hundreds of staff.
Tej Kohli sold the company in 2006 for an undisclosed sum, and the Kohli family moved to a new family home in the United Kingdom. Earn outs from the sale continued until 2012, during which time Tej visited the company in Costa Rica twice per year.
By 2008 Tej was focused entirely on investing in and building his ‘Zibel’ real estate portfolio in India and South East Asia. He continued to build a substantial real estate asset base by focusing on new premium real estate acquisitions in the UAE and Europe. The appreciation and income stream from the Zibel property portfolio today funds the Tej Kohli Foundation.
After 2006 Tej also became an investor into innovative technology ventures focused on artificial intelligence, robotics and genomics through his investment vehicle Kohli Ventures; and also made new acquisitions in the global payment processing sector, including the acquisition of DynaCart in 2014. Since 2018 Tej Kohli has also 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.
Rewired also includes a sister venture fund that is focused on investing in the global growth phenomenon that is esports. Through the Rewired.gg Esports Venture Fund, in 2018 and then again in 2019, Tej led Europe’s largest ever esports team investment with a €34m investment into Europe’s leading and most innovative esports brand and its innovative young founders.
Tej is also 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.
In 2010 Tej also backed an M&A roll-up of plastic surgery clinics in the USA, exiting in 2015. And in 2015 Tej became lead investor in a B2B SaaS platform technology provider where he instigated a turnaround program. The privately held company, which has dual headquarters in Europe and in China, currently employs 300 software developers in 8 offices worldwide.
In 2010 the Tej Kohli Foundation funded its first donor cornea implants at Niramaya Hospital in India. Tej was present when a 50-year-old patient, who had been blind for decades, had the bandages removed after a corneal transplant and saw his wife and grown up children for the first time. Tej immediately decided that eliminating corneal blindness was his calling.
After funding thousands of corneal transplants at Niramaya Hospital, 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 Tej Kohli Cornea Institute welcomed more than 223,404 outpatients and completed more than 43,255 surgical procedures.
Tej has also driven the Tej Kohli Foundation’s pursuit of a ‘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. 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. In 2019 Tej also funded the Tej Kohli Cornea Program at Massachusetts Eye And Ear in Boston with an initial donation of $2m.
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.
Many of the team who started their journey with Tej Kohli have gone on to build their own successful global businesses, and Tej is proud of his mentorship of these entrepreneurs. This mentorship philosophy continues today through the investments of Kohli Ventures, where Tej is backing and mentoring entrepreneurial founders as they build technology businesses.
For many years Tej believed in keeping his early story private for fear that it would create prejudice within his business, personal and family relationships. He feared that others would use a single mistake made in 1988 to cast aspersions about his character or to denigrate his contemporary achievements. But Tej Kohli knows an awful lot about comebacks.
Now in his sixties and a father to two teenagers, Tej is embracing the opportunity to inspire and educate younger people by sharing his full story. He has begun giving talks in schools about the importance of rebuilding one’s self even after a major setback. And he is increasingly seeking to engender within the entrepreneurs that he mentors the belief that it is never too late to find success; as well as the importance of grass roots philanthropy.
As Tej says of his comeback story:
“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.”