When Tej Kohli graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur in 1980, the world was a very different place. His first job as an Electrical Engineering graduate was to install tachometers for a company in Delhi, where Kohli got his first affirmation of his desire to become an entrepreneur.
By 2006 the prodigious success of a payment gateways provider that Kohli founded in 1999 enabled him to sell his company and focus on helping others, and in 2018 IIT Kanpur conferred its Distinguished Alumnus Award upon Kohli.
The award from IIT was for “serving society at large” thanks to Kohli’s achievements developing solutions to major global health challenges through the Tej Kohli Foundation. The guiding philosophy of the organisation is ‘rebuilding you’, and since 2005 the Tej Kohli Foundation has made direct interventions to improve tens of thousands of lives.
The Foundation has also become a recognised authority and an interdisciplinary hub for collaboration in the worldwide mission to end poverty-driven corneal blindness.
The Tej Kohli Foundation engenders the faith of Tej Kohli in the promise of new technologies. In November 2019 the foundation launched its ‘Future Bionics’ program, which provides the world’s first clinically approved ‘bionic’ arms to young people in the United Kingdom.
The first recipient to receive a fully funded bionic arm was a 10-year old boy called Jacob, who was born without his lower left arm because of amniotic band syndrome. Jacob received his 3D-printed bionic arm as a Christmas present from Kohli.
Jacob was the first recipient of a 3D printed bionic arm from the Tej Kohli Foundation. Photo: Provided by Tej Kohli Foundation
In 2010 the Tej Kohli Foundation funded its first donor corneal transplants at Nirmaya Hospital in India. Tej Kolhi was present when a 50-year-old man who had been blind for decades was able to see again for the first time. It was an epiphany moment for Kohli, and he resolved that ending needless corneal blindness would be his calling. By 2015 Tej Kolhi was funding so many corneal transplant operations that a bigger facility was needed, and the foundation commenced a partnership with the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad.
The ‘Tej Kohli Cornea Institute’ at LV Prasad ran until late 2019 and during this time welcomed 223,404 outpatients and completed 43,255 surgical procedures, largely for free. The YouTube channel of the Tej Kohli Foundation is filled with the life changing stories of patients who were cured of blindness or severe visual impairment, including an entire family cured of blindness after travelling from Rajasthan to seek out treatment.
According to the WHO, twelve million people worldwide suffer from corneal blindness, including six million in India. Up to 75% of corneal disease is entirely curable, but globally less than one in seventy of those who need a corneal transplant will receive one each year. Corneal blindness is at its most pervasive in poor or remote communities, and the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in Hyderabad was adept at reaching out and into these communities.
A corneal transplant operation at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute at LV Prasad Eye Institute. Photo: Provided by Tej Kohl Foundation
Tej Kohli’s preoccupation has become to rebuild millions of people by solving the poverty-driven treatment gap that sustains corneal blindness. Kohli’s own path to success was not always smooth and reads like a movie script. In his twenties he established a wildly successful real estate business in Los Angeles with luxurious offices in Beverley Hills. But the company became unwittingly embroiled in a novel scheme to transact real estate that fell afoul of lawmakers, and the business was shuttered, with grave consequences for Kohli.
But Kohli was determined to rebuild himself, and in 1999 he founded an online payment gateways provider in Costa Rica. Kohli’s company grew exponentially thanks to the popularity of the proprietary fraud protection protocols that were integrated into its solutions, and it carved a worldwide niche serving clients in high risk sectors. The company also acquired failing online gaming properties and turned them around to re-sell at profit.
The eventual sale of his company in 2006 was a turning point for Tej Kohli. The sale purportedly netted Kohli more than $500m and he resolved to use this success to do good for the world. As Tej Kohli says on his website: “I rebuilt myself into a big success, and I’m determined to use that success to rebuild others too”.
Today the modus operandi of Tej Kohli and the Tej Kohli Foundation is ‘Rebuilding You’.
Affordable, Accessible, Scalable
Kohli’s ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy extends far beyond making individual interventions. A core challenge in Tej Kohli’s mission to eradicate corneal blindness is that current treatment solutions are not designed to be applicable in the poor countries where 90% of those with corneal visual impairment or blindness actually live. Donor cornea are scarce, synthetic cornea are expensive, and corneal transplants in all forms are invasive and require sutures.
Tej Kohli’s mission has become to develop a treatment for corneal blindness that is affordable and accessible such that it can be scaled into the world’s poor and remote communities where poverty-driven blindness is at its most pervasive. For a number of years Tej Kohli’s ‘Applied Research’ program has been developing affordable synthetic cornea. It started by synthetizing cornea from yeast and then from peptides. But these solutions came with a high rate of rejection, and still required inaccessibly expensive surgery.
The solution that Kohli is now working on with the help of scientists and ophthalmologists from around the world, is a liquid biosynthetic that causes corneal tissue to regenerate. The solution could be easily applied at low cost by a nurse without any need for surgery and could be relevant to up to half of those in the world with corneal blindness.
In January 2020 the Tej Kohli Foundation’s ‘Applied Research’ project announced that it had moved one step closer to using its proprietary regenerative technology bridge the gap between the high cost of treatment for corneal blindness and the unmet medical need in poor communities.
Most current treatments for corneal blindness rely on synthetic or donor cornea (pictured).
The desire to use new technologies to rebuild people is further borne out by the repeated calls by Tej Kolhi for technology to be employed to develop “new and novel solutions”. In July 2019 Tej Kohli gifted $2m to a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School to fund new technological innovations to cure corneal blindness.
On the Tej Kohli Foundation YouTube channel the Professors behind the project say that they are working on nano-string technologies for the rapid diagnostic of corneal disease; as well as a ‘GelCORE’ product to remove the need for invasive surgery when treating corneal damage and blindness.
In February 2020 the Tej Kohli Foundation also launched a new incubator in the United Kingdom to back science and technology projects that have a clear pathway toward ending poverty-driven corneal blindness; and in April 2020 Tej Kohli also launched a UK-based Centre For Interdisciplinary Innovation to provide grants to UK-based science projects. The UK Centre has also made a grant of $100,000 to develop a genetic vaccine for COVID-19.
A scientist working on the Tej Kohli Foundation’s Applied Research program. Photo: Tej Kohl Foundation
Tej Kolhi’s faith in technology is longstanding, but when Tej Kohli graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur in 1980, he surely could not have perceived the vast array of frontier technologies that would be available forty years later.
Yet his mission to use new innovations to rebuild people means that Tej Kohli and his eponymous foundation have now become an important conduit for the development and transfer of new and novel technologies out the laboratory and into the real world.
The Tej Kohli Foundation is highlighting the lesser-known global health deficiencies that are manifest within poor and underserved communities, funding the development of innovative new technological solutions to address these deficiencies, and then playing an active role in getting the new technology solutions scaled into the communities that need them.
The Foundation has even turned to social impact entertainment to help to highlight little-known global health issues that need to be solved. In 2019 it commissioned independent filmmakers to produce ‘Father Will I See Again?’, a documentary about ‘India’s forgotten children’ who suffer from XP. Kohli also helped to bring their plight to the attention of the global community through a major media collaboration in the hope of finding solutions.
Teenager Sadiya is the subject of ‘Father Will I See Again?’, a social impact documentary. Photo: Tej Kohli Foundation
Sharing The Story
This type of story sharing is important for the Tej Kohli Foundation. Tej Kohli is emphatic that the success of his eponymous foundation depends on the sharing of its stories and successes and ideas. This process of sharing is how Kohli says new projects and collaborators emerge with different areas of expertise. And it is from this multi-disciplinary international collaboration that new and novel solutions and treatments start to emerge.
Kohli says that even though his focus is on unlocking technological solutions that will enable him to ‘rebuild’ millions of people, his foundation will never forget its roots making direct interventions to improve and rebuild individual lives.
The Foundation’s longest-standing project is a free canteen that has fed hundreds of children every day since 2005, and Kohli says that he has no intention of withdrawing from the communities where he is helping.
Tej Kohli had to rebuild himself into a success story. But his greatest successes may still lie ahead if he is able to use technology to rebuild millions of others too.
Sponsored content provided by Tej Kohli Foundation.