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Learning lessons with Tej Kohli

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Tara writes about wealth, having written for titles including The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and the Financial Times, and is Editor-in-Chief at Billionaire.

The tech tycoon’s legacy is built on hard work, determination, and some savvy investments.

This post was updated on 13 May 2021 to reflect the launch of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation.

Tej Kohli knows what it is like to fail. In his twenties, the Indian-born, British-based billionaire, made some bad decisions about his growing real estate empire which resulted in him losing everything and having to start from scratch. It was an experience, he believes, that has helped to define his work/life philosophy.

“I rebuilt myself into a big success, and I’m determined to use that success to help rebuild others too,” he says, from his home in Oxfordshire.

Sheer hard work combined with being in the right place at the right time, enabled Tej Kohli to make his ‘comeback’, thanks to online payment software and other online tools he developed during the dot-com boom.

Now, aged 62, the father-of-two has built his wealth through a number of smart investments, most of which are in ‘deep tech’ – ie technologies not focused on end user services, including artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics, genomics and biotech. He is also a major philanthropist, best-known for his goal to eradicate corneal blindness worldwide by 2035, an objective he has been able to set thanks to the wealth he has accumulated.

“Knowing what to do in life is great, but so is knowing what not to do” adds Kohli. “After my rollercoaster of a life if I can use my own experiences to help younger people make the right choices, then I am all for that.”

The future of sport

Tej Kohli enjoys spending his money in London but his investment activities are restricted to the fast-growth markets of Asia and the far East, as well as the emerging technology hubs of Europe. His latest series of investments is in the esports industry.

Esports is a form of sport competition using video games, which takes the form of organized tournaments between players in professional teams. It is overwhelmingly a younger pastime: a 2019 survey found that 32% of Internet users aged between 16 and 24 watched esports, compared to just 6% of those aged between 55 and 64.  By 2021 it is predicted that in the USA esports will have more viewers than every professional sports league except for the NFL.

32% of Internet users aged between 16 and 24 regularly watch esports

In 2020 Adweek reported that the $139bn combined annual revenue of the esports and gaming industry had outstripped the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL combined, with 20% annual growth– more than sports and movies. And the lockdowns of 2020 have not tapered the exponential growth of esports: with most traditional sporting events cancelled, a lot of major ‘traditional’ sporting leagues focused more on their esports activities. Formula 1 was a big winner, with many fans tuning in to the online F1 races. FIFA also saw a big boost, with many professional footballers spending their time during lockdown playing and streaming the game online.

Tej Kohli is now Europe’s largest individual esports investor after ploughing $100m of his own money into the Switzerland-based Rewired Venture Studio fund, with €50m allocated for esports investment. Since 2018 the Esports Venture Fund arm of Rewired has invested €34m into Paris-based Team Vitality, which is now one of the leading esports teams in Europe.

Kohli has no direct involvement in the team that Rewired has invested in but says that the investment has turned him into Team Vitality’s biggest fan. He watches every tournament, though he confesses that he has not yet taken to playing the games himself. Esports has also switched on Kohli to the opportunities for young entrepreneurs to succeed within esports.

“Many esports players also experience success at an early age and believe me, because I know, it is easy to mess it up!”

A Drive to Succeed

Born in Delhi, Kohli studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, whose famous alumni include Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Khosla, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, Palo Alto Networks CEO Nikesh Arora and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kohli shared the passion of his fellow alumni for technology and software, and his own big break came in 1999 when he launched a company in Costa Rica.

Kohli’s company specialised in online payment technologies and it carved a profitable niche by serving the ‘high risk’ online sectors. Over a seven-year period Kohli launched and spun-out enterprises specialising in online payment gateways, online payment fraud protection software and e-commerce services. Kohli leveraged his connections to build huge teams of software developers in both Costa Rica and India at the tail end of the dot com boom.

“I believe that over the course of my career I have probably employed over one hundred thousand people” says Kohli. “The early days were like the Wild West with very little online regulation and we tried our hand at almost everything”. By 2006 Kohli owned an unwieldy conglomeration of companies engaged in everything from software development through to transacting the turnaround and sale of gaming websites. Kohli decided to cash it all in.

Today Tej Kohli uses his success to fund not-for-profit projects that help and support younger people.

In 2002 he had become a father for the first time at what he calls the “very late” age of forty-four. With plans for a bigger family Kohli had begun to reconsider his priorities and moved his family to England to pursue the life of an English gentleman by buying his large home in the Oxfordshire countryside. By the time that his daughter was born in London in 2005 Kohli had started selling his companies and beginning a new life.

By 2013 Kohli sold the last part of his empire when he disposed of online payments processor, Estacion Tramar, in a $34m trade sale. The regular earn out liquidity flowing in from the string of divestments and sales that Kohli had transacted since 2006, provided him with the validation that he had been seeking as well as the resources to engage in any new project that he liked.

Diversification

After a rocky start early in his investment career, Kohli always believed strongly in the importance of diversification. So he has split his worldwide holdings across six investment verticals including: real estate, deep tech, esports, biotechnology, e-commerce and cryptocurrency. His equities portfolio has also grown; and a few years ago Kohli’s advisors started to build a position in Bitcoin which by 2021 would attain a value of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“When I first heard about Bitcoin I was very sceptical and when we started spending hundreds of thousands, and then millions of dollars, buying up large tranches of Bitcoin, there were times that I worried we might be throwing away everything that we had worked for,” reflects Kohli. “In the event by 2021 it had turned out to be the most profitable investment that I have ever made.”

Tej Kohli is bullish about the future prospects for Bitcoin: “When it was at $10,000, I was saying that it would go to $100,000 once that the big institutions started to invest and the ETF’s started getting approved. Now it’s at $50,000 I could actually see Bitcoin getting to $1m one day, the question is when, and how much volatility there might be during that journey.”

Since 2006 Tej Kohli has also directed his financial resources into his Kohli Ventures investment vehicle. In 2014 Kohli Ventures bought out payment processor dynacart and proceeded to turn it into an operator of e-commerce websites. Kohli Ventures also bought out Florida-based biotech company Detraxi with plans to take its proprietary technology to market.

“The problem with pharma and biotech companies like Detraxi is that it is extremely high risk and you need the ability to ‘wait out’ your investment across very long time horizons” says Kohli. “There’s a very good reason that not many individual investors do buyouts in the biotech sector, because it’s much more suited to large funds that have lots of diversification”.

Kohli says that what fascinated him about Detraxi was the potential applications for the technology. Whilst he is hesitant to discuss it in any detail for fear of compromising the intellectual property, Kohli has written in his #TejTalks blog about a world where organs can be reengineered outside of the body and where blood shortages no longer exist.

Zibel Real Estate

But it is real estate where Tej Kohli has best exercised his Midas touch for getting in early on riding the tide of technological change. Since 2006 his Zibel Real Estate portfolio has made a series of well-timed investments as Kohli sought to invest the liquidity from the earn outs of selling his companies by focusing on “micro locations” within global cities that are being transformed by an influx of technology companies and technology wealth.

Growing demand for residential, commercial and industrial real estate has led to the growth of micro-locations within Gurgaon in India.

Tej Kohli has heavily invested in Gurgaon, a privately-financed technology city which has risen from what just a few decades ago was agricultural wasteland 32km outside of New Delhi. Gurgaon has become a highly profitable location for real estate investors as firms including Google, HSBC, Nokia and Intel have set up their Indian operations in the city. Kohli’s Zibel Real Estate holdings are clustered around micro-locations like Sohna Road and Dwarka Expressway in Gurgaon, where real estate prices have jumped 18% to 19% in a very short period of time.

Zibel Real Estate’s holdings include the Fritz Tower in Berlin, a development of 226 fully furnished micro-apartments.

Closer to home Tej Kohli invested over €100m into the Berlin property market just before prices skyrocketed as the city became a major European tech cluster. He notes in a #TejTalks blog that even though real estate prices in Berlin have appreciated dramatically since 2010, the city still remains cheap by European standards, since average real estate prices in Berlin are €1,800 to €7,000 per square metre compared to €10,000 to €18,000 in Paris and €12,000 to €18,000 in London. “Average gross yields in Paris and London and now below 5%.  But in Germany it is still possible to take recoup a yield of 6%, and even as high as 8% in Berlin” says Kohli.

Esports Investment Growth

Tej Kohli says that his true raison d’être has always been deep tech. The $100m that he recently invested into the Rewired Venture Studio has since been allocated by the fund into a diverse portfolio of growth-stage ventures which are collectively engineering the components of a future global economy in which artificial intelligence is omnipresent everywhere, whilst also targeting a ‘double bottom line’ of humanitarian or social impact.

Investments by Rewired encompass sensors, bionics, robotics, machine learning, mapping and localization. Applications of technologies being developed by Rewired companies include using olfactory sensors and robots to substantially increase rates of plastics recycling; using AI-powered drones to optimise the efficiency of large-scale solar power sites; and creating 3D-printed bionics limbs that have superior functionality compared to conventional prosthetics.

It was this investment that also saw Kohli acquire the accolade of becoming the largest individual esports investor in all of Europe. So far €34m of Kohli’s funding has been invested across multiple rounds into Paris-based Team Vitality, which has used the investment to build the largest esports complex in Europe, to expand into China and India, and to increasingly dominate the international franchises and leagues where its teams compete.

Kohli says that esports could one day turn out to be a better investment than Bitcoin. “If you look at sports teams and then look at esports teams, and then compare the audience sizes and the current disparity in the monetisation of fans, then esports teams have huge value to be unlocked. Already my investment is probably today worth five or six times the principal amount. Some esports teams will be easily worth over a billion dollars in the next few years.”

Kohli is also cautious to add that “there is no magic esports fairy dust that creates value. I get a lot of esports ventures pitched to me that are conventional businesses but wrapped in an esports wrapper. It takes huge amounts of funding and intellectual capital to build an esports brand. What you will eventually see will be a few huge esports businesses hoovering up the monetization and then a very long tail of many smaller ventures competing for what’s left.”

Kohli adds: “As a technologist for me to be invested in esports is only natural because it has all of the elements that I look for: I look for eyeballs, I look for a trends that are forward-leaning and I look for technologies. Esports is about as technologically oriented as things can be and I fully expect VR to come in quite soon and thereafter I expect that we will have actual simulation where huge esports stadiums will be full of virtual reality landscapes”.

Closing The Development Gap

But perhaps the more interesting thing about Tej Kohli is not his commercial endeavours, but his global mission to give others a second chance at life. Over the last decade Kohli has been curing the blindness of thousands of people who are living in the world’s poorest communities through his not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation.

Kofi Annan and Tej Kohli

As the proceeds from successful investments like esports help to fund Kohli’s not-for-profit projects, Kohli points out that there is an “invisible link” between the growth of the esports sector and his ability to make an impact in his mission to “rebuild others” as a philanthropist. “It’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m watching an esports team play, but yes, it matters”.

In 2005 Kohli inaugurated the Tej Kohli Foundation and started launching free canteens to feed underprivileged children before and after school each day in Costa Rica. The project still exists today, sixteen years later. “Some of the kids that we fed in the early days bring their own kids in to be fed today” says Kohli. “That is not necessarily a good thing as the hope is that each generation does better, but I would rather that they have our support than not”.

Two girls are amongst the hundreds of young people who eat for free each day at ‘Funda Kohli’ canteens in Costa Rica.

As is the Kohli trope, today the Tej Kohli Foundation has expanded its reach into a series of diverse worldwide projects under its ‘Rebuilding You’ banner. The mandate of the not-for-profit is to ‘give people second chances at life through transformative grassroots interventions and by developing life-changing treatments’. But there is one objective that the Tej Kohli Foundation manifests the most: the Tej Kohli mission to end blindness caused by poverty.

“The statistics on blindness are shocking” says Kohli. “Some 285 million people have some form of visual impairment and 39 million are blind. Blindness is a direct function of poverty and inequality, which means that about 89% of all blindness occurs in poor and middle-income countries where people do not have access to preventative treatments or cures. People think that as extreme poverty declines this problem will get better but in fact that is not true.”

Kohli points out that around half of all blindness is from cataract and whilst the prevalence of cataracts may be slightly falling, the absolute number of cataract blind is increasing due to demographics in poorer countries where populations are growing and ageing. This is also the case for Kohli’s area of expertise, corneal blindness, which is the second most prevalent cause of blindness and the leading cause of blindness amongst children in poorer countries.

Tej Kohli and family at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in India

Kohli started funding corneal treatments in 2010 at Niramaya Hospital in India and has not looked back since. In 2015 he inaugurated the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in Hyderabad. Between 2016 and 2019 the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute welcomed 223,404 outpatients and completed 43,255 surgical procedures to cure and alleviate corneal blindness, many of them funded by Kohli at no cost to the patient. As well as a large facility in Hyderabad, the Institute was also highly adept at taking treatments out into remote rural communities.

“The challenge” say Kohli, “is that as satisfying as it is to be curing so many people, when making treatment interventions we are curing individuals, but not solving the problem. Statistically and logistically speaking, making direct interventions will never eliminate needless blindness from the world – at least not using current treatments and technologies.”

Kohli points out that current treatments for corneal blindness in particular rely on the transplantation of synthetic or human-donated cornea into a patient. The surgery is expensive and highly evasive, requiring a skilled surgeon who can apply sutures within the eye. To end corneal blindness, Kohli wanted to find an affordable, scalable and accessible solution; and this requires a substantial amount of investment into new scientific innovations.

Kohli recently donated an initial $2 million to Massachusetts Eye And Ear in Boston to establish the Tej Kohli Cornea Program, which is supporting the development of scientific and technological breakthroughs which can help to eradicate corneal blindness. The program supports the research projects of Professors and clinicians at Harvard Medical School and includes the development of new DNA hybridization techniques and nano string technologies that can prevent blindness by providing a more rapid early diagnosis of corneal disease.

“This is where the future lies” says Kohli, “if we are going to eradicate people going blind because of poverty and inequality, then we need to get on top of very rapid diagnosis and preventative medicine even in the most remote rural communities in low income countries, because this is where the world’s blindness actually is. We then need to take treatments out into those communities at little or no cost”.

Kohli is at pains to emphasise that eradicating blindness will ultimately come down to infrastructure. “Extreme poverty is falling worldwide but there remains great inequality and there are plenty of people still in ‘regular’ poverty. The treatment gap that has allowed needless blindness to become so pervasive won’t simply close itself. We’ve got to build eye bank infrastructure, community eye hospitals and get savvy about empowering and training teams locally and reaching out to the disenfranchised”.

Themes such as poverty and inequality and the benefits of renewable energy and technology transfer are themes that Kohli is passionate about and they recur regularly in his #TejTalks series of online blogs.  Kohli doesn’t just blog in one place but spreads his posts across social media and platforms including MediumGhost and The Motley Fool – all tagged as #TejTalks. 

Kohli speaks with a glint in his eye when asked about what 2021 holds in store.  2020 was a record year for his investments, which motivated Kohli to adopt even more projects into his not-for-profit Foundation.  In the USA Kohli has provided funding toward the development of a genetic vaccine to Coronavirus.  In London he has been funding several local grassroots groups and enabling tens of thousands of meals to be provided daily to families with young children who were struggling during the pandemic.  And he has continued funding the provision of 3D printed bionic limbs for disabled children and teenagers in the UK too. 

The Tej Kohli #FutureBionics project is funding bionic limbs for young people in the UK.

The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation

But the project that has really got Tej Kohli excited is the Tej Kohli And Ruit Foundation, a restricted fund operating under the auspices of Prism the Gift Fund (registered UK charity no.1099682). Tej Kohli founded the Tej Kohli And Ruit Foundation with Nepalese ‘God of Sight’ Dr. Sanduk Ruit as his co-Founder. The partnership combines Ruit’s technical expertise for delivering large-scale low-cost cataract surgeries with Kohli’s experience of funding grassroots projects.

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide, accounting for half of the world’s 40 million blind. 5 million new cases of cataract blindness occur each year and the majority of the world’s 20 million cataract blind live in the developing world. The Tej Kohli And Ruit Foundation plans to screen 1,000,000 patients and cure 300,000 to 500,000 of cataracts by 2026.

After having her blindness cured by the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation, Soorya’s mind was dazed for a while because she was unable to comprehend that she could actually see again. Soon she was smiling and laughing with fellow patients. Read Soorya’s story here.

As well as operating in Nepal the Tej Kolhi & Ruit Foundation also plans to despatch its microsurgical outreach camps to deliver free cataract surgeries in poor and underserved communities in Northern India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, North Korea, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Lebanon and Syria. Each mission will see the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation create community eye treatment camps to treat hundreds of local people for free.

Dr Sanduk Ruit with a group of patients who have been cured of blindness by the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation in Nepal. Amongst them is Tilamaya Rai who was given a new lease of life after receiving her free surgery. You can read Tilamaya’s story here.

The project launched on 30 March 2021 amidst much fanfare from AP, MSN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera. Within two weeks the Tej Kohli And Ruit Foundation had cured 1,512 people of blindness in the remote mountain villages of Nepal thanks to an inaugural camp at the birthplace of Buddha near to Lumbini in Nepal, followed by a second camp in Solukhumbu in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The inaugural microsurgical outreach camp of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation

Tej Kohli said of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation in a launch press release: “Second chances matter. When you cure someone of blindness you give them a second chance at life. They can be economically active. They can enjoy and look after their family. Yet millions of people in the world remain blind because they do not have access to treatment. This alliance with Sanduk Ruit means that we focus on potentially helping over a million people in need.”

The Good Life

While Kohli has a strong philanthropic sense of purpose, he also doesn’t fail to enjoy the fruits of his hard work. Highly colourful and famously outspoken, Kohli can usually be found frequenting some of London’s most exclusive private members clubs. His wardrobe is filled with colourful tailored suits and immaculate shoes. At his mansion in Oxfordshire, he also has an impressive collection of supercars, ranging from Bugattis to Bentleys and lots in between.  

Tej Kohli’s philosophy continues to be play hard, work hard.

Tej Kohli is famous in London’s well-heeled Mayfair for his daily luncheon ritual: his driver will arrive in a long wheel-base Bentley outside Kohli’s Berkeley Square headquarters, before proceeding to drive him to Annabel’s private club on the other side of the square – a journey of a mere 150 feet. This type of largesse reflects Kohli’s faithful embrace of enjoying every aspect of his life to the fullest regardless of what people think.   

Even now as a sexagenarian, Kohli’s philosophy continues to be play hard, work hard. His enjoyment of luxury is balanced with his ability for extremely hard work. He is motivated not so much by earnings, but through progress, he says. Right now, his focus is on making sure that the esports team he invested in becomes one of the world’s first $1 billion esports brands.  

Kohli adds that his new Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation project is not dependent upon his investments living up to his expectations, but that it remains important that his portfolio of investments continue to do well: “Momentum matters. To move forward everything that I am involved with, whether it’s commercial or not-for-profit, needs to be continually progressing. The second that one thing starts to falter it detracts from other things and everything slows down.” 

Kohli’s says that as he embarks upon this new project to cure hundreds of thousands of cataract blindness within the world’s poorest communities, he will be heeding the same advice that he often gives to the ambitious esports entrepreneurs that frequently pitch for his investment:

“Never forget that 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.” 

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