Tej Kohli: Profile Of A $100m AI Investor

Technologist Tej Kohli has invested funds into Rewired

Tej Kohli is an artificial intelligence and robotics investor who has committed $100m of funds into Rewired. Tej Kohli first rose to prominence in 2006 after selling a series of companies specialising in online payments technology. His interests today include Zibel Real Estate and a portfolio of e-commerce enterprises such as dynacart. His passion for artificial intelligence is well documented: in 2019 he forecast that artificial intelligence could double global GDP by 2025.

A $150 Trillion AI Economy?

There is no doubt that artificial intelligence is already transforming global productivity and creating enormous wealth and opportunity. Research firm Gartner expects the global AI economy to be worth $3.9 Trillion by 2022, while McKinsey sees it delivering global economic activity of $13 trillion by 2030. By that same year, PwC estimates that the global AI economy will be worth $15.7 trillion, more than the combined output of China and India.

But Tej Kohli believes that these estimates are too cautious. In an interview with Forbes, he estimates that the true figure might be nearer to $150 trillion: more than twice the global GDP estimate of the IMF.

Kolhi posits that everything which is currently on the Internet can also be manifest through AI in smarter and more effective ways; and that beyond this AI has myriad additional applications in healthcare, biotech, hospitality, retail and thousands of other industries occupying almost every other segment of economic activity. According to Kohli, with the worldwide Internet economy alone worth approximately $50 trillion today, it would not be a big stretch of the imagination to extrapolate at least three times as many applications for the global artificial intelligence economy to get to $150 trillion.

But Tej Kohli is much more than a self-appointed AI evangelist. In 2019 he also poured $100m of his own money into Rewired to support the development of AI technologies.

Tej Kohli has invested $100m into the Rewired robotics focused venture studio.

COVID-19 Vaccine Development

The coronavirus pandemic means that more recently Tej Kohli has been occupied by his Tej Kohli Foundation. In March 2020 Kohli donated toward the COVID-19 Vaccine Development Fund at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston. The funding has supported the efforts of Dr Luk Vandederberghe, an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, who needed to raise funds to support the development of a new genetic vaccine to COVID-19.

At the time that Tej Kohli authorized the vaccine donation, the World Health Organization estimated there were 70 different vaccine development projects worldwide. Many of these vaccines are now being deployed to protect people and (hopefully) bring an end to the pandemic.

Interventions That Cure And Alleviate Blindness

Dr Vandederberghe’s vaccine is an adaptation of existing AAV technology, which is a form of gene therapy that is already in use to treat an inherited form of vision loss, which is something that Tej Kohli knows a lot about because of the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute.

The Tej Kohli Cornea Institute is a not-for-profit project of Tej Kohli.

Between 2015 and 2019 his Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in India welcomed 223,404 outpatients, completed 43,255 surgical procedures, collected 38,225 donor corneas into its eye bank, utilized 22,176 donor corneas, trained 152 clinicians, published 202 papers and gave 892 educational presentations. About 12 million people in India are currently blind, many because of poverty. The Tej Kohli speciality is in taking treatments out into remote and rural communities where poverty and inequality have created a treatment gap.

Surgeons conduct a corneal transplant at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute.

Real Estate, Software And Bitcoin

Tej Kohli is the sole funder of all of his not-for-profit activities. Much of the income that funds them comes from his Zibel Real Estate portfolio. As owner of residential towers and premium residences, real estate clearly interests Kohli. In his #TejTalks blog Tej Kohli expressed his desire to invest in a Station F for London, but insists that it would have to be in the capacity as a passive real estate investor, not as the project instigator or leader. At 51,000 sqm Station F in Paris is the largest tech start-up incubator in the world.

Tej Kohli’s Zibel Real Estate holdings includes a global portfolio of residential towers.

Tej Kohli is also the owner of a number of e-commerce and software companies that are engaged in the development and licencing of specialist software, though he has previously stated that these are “conservative” enterprises which “aren’t particularly exciting”. Perhaps more exciting are Kohli’s cryptocurrency holdings. Tej Kohli has been building his position in Bitcoin for “a number of years”, and whilst the value of his Bitcoin holdings is not disclosed, anyone who continued to invest as the coin price rallied from $1,000 in 2017 to over $40,000 in early 2021 will have enjoyed vast returns.

Rebuilding And Second Chances

Tej Kohli’s journey to becoming a $100m AI investor has not always been smooth. His mother was a pioneer, becoming a diplomat stationed in the United States at a time when women in India were expected to be stay at home wives. Kohli has previously said that he took huge inspiration from his mother and was driven by her to become a success in his twenties.

But this prodigious early success was not to last. Kohli suffered a failure whilst still in his twenties which put him on the wrong side of the US authorities. It would be unkind to dwell on events of the 1980’s given Kohli’s achievements during the decades since. He has said that the experience of having to take responsibility for his mistakes, losing everything and then ‘rebuilding’ himself from nothing was both humbling and life changing.

One might contemplate whether Tej Kohli has been seeking affirmation of his own ‘second chance’ at life ever since through his philanthropic endeavours? His Tej Kohli Foundation is built around a ‘rebuilding you’ philosophy. On its homepage the not-for-profit states that it “gives people second chances at life through transformative grassroots interventions and by supporting the development of life changing treatments”.

The colourful, optimistic and prosperous Tej Kohli who can today be found frequenting London’s most exclusive establishments and driving ultra-rare motor cars owes his contemporary success to having founded and sold a series of companies specialising in online payments in the late 1990’s. Kohli’s Group of companies such as Estacion Tramar employed “armies” of developers in Asia and South America by the time that Tej Kohli divested his interests in a series of trade sales before leaving the Group entirely.

Technology Investor

It was the constant flow of incoming liquidity arising from these sales that first necessitated Tej Kohli becoming an active investor into new ventures. A Distinguished Alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kohli had long had an interest in technology and it was this interest which manifest in his early investments into the components of the oncoming AI revolution, including machine learning, robotics, memory chips and sensor technologies.

By 2010 Tej Kohli formed the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle and engaged in a series of investments and buyouts which spanned everything from devolved solar power generation in developing countries through to the acquisition of companies such as dynacart, which Kohli Ventures acquired in 2014. Today dynacart has been built into an e-commerce platform and marketplace serving thousands of brands and millions of customers.

It was in 2019 that Tej Kohli committed $100m of investment to Rewired. Rewired is a managed venture fund that is focused on growth-stage investments into artificial intelligence technologies. In his #TejTalks blog Tej Kohli says that the objectives and outlook of Rewired aligned completely with his own view that the global AI economy could soon be worth $150 trillion.

Since its foundation Rewired has focused on investments into five verticals: sensors, bionics, machine learning, robotics, mapping and localization. Rewired is based in Switzerland but actively invests in ventures around the world. The Rewired portfolio is closely guarded aside from a few case studies and a 2020 exit from machine learning pioneer Seldon.

Whilst Tej Kohli has no say in the running or decisions of Rewired, he has become a vocal advocate of the fund. Kohli is particularly enthusiastic about Rewired investee company Aromyx, which is based in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley based Aromyx has developed olfactory sensors with the potential to reduce the volume of plastics that are deemed to be ‘un-recyclable’ due to odour contamination.

Aromyx started life as a project of DARPA, thenRewired become its lead investor by providing 50% of the Series A fundraising when Aromyx became a private company. Aromyx has invented an olfactory senor technology which converts taste and smell into data. A recent study with a major chemicals conglomerate has shown that using this Armoyx technology in the recycling sorting process could vastly increase plastics recycling rates and precipitate a global plastics recycling revolution.

Thanks to his investment into Rewired’s Rewired.gg Esports Venture Fund, Tej Kohli is also Europe’s largest individual investor into the global esports mega trend. The European esports brand that Rewired.GG has backed since 2018 is expanding rapidly into India and China in a way that has left rivals brands trailing. Tej Kohli is on record as saying that he expects the investment to be amongst the world’s first $1 billion esports brands.

Biotechnology Investor

Away from Rewired, many of Tej Kohli’s investments are made through his Kohli Ventures vehicle, which pursues a ‘double bottom line’ of social impact and financial return. Florida-based Detraxi was wholly acquired by Kohli Ventures a few years ago and recently completed trials of its regenerative biotech at John’s Hopkins University. The company is working on solutions that can solve the global blood shortage and organ donation crises.

Florida based Detraxi is working on solving the global blood shortage.

In a 2019 column for Project Syndicate Tej Kohli wrote that we are underestimating how the frontier technologies of artificial intelligence and biotechnology could be brought together to tackle global health and environmental challenges. He pointed out that big data and AI are making it possible to facilitate far more efficient organ donation matches than ever before, but that the practical challenges of preserving and moving organs around mean that it is impossible to fully unlock a more efficient regime.

Kohli says that combining existing AI solutions with the synthetic biotechnology of Detraxi would vastly expand the scope of feasible pairings by preserving and even regenerating organs outside of the body at ambient temperature, thus extending the distances that organs can be transported. This would enable a network effect by increasing the size of viable data pools from which AI models can draw to produce efficient chains of pairings. Kohli points out that this synthetic biology market is growing fast, and is expected to exceed $12.5 billion by 2024: a compound annual growth rate of 20%.

Detraxi is also working on a combined AI and biotech solution to ending the organ donation crisis.

When it comes to Detraxi, Tej Kohli has also blogged that:

“if we suspend our disbelief for a moment and fast forward ten years, then Detraxi might be playing a role in ending the global blood shortage, ending the global organ donation crisis and even enabling organs to be engineered and regenerated outside of the body to eliminate disease.”

Engineering organs outside of the body might sounds like something from science fiction, but it is symptomatic of Tej Kohli’s optimism in this field. He has already suggested that he expects his children to live to the age of 125 and that he believes DNA programming might mean that in the future, health problems such as eliminating disease or curing cancer might be solved without chemotherapy and surgery. More recently Tej Kohli is reported to be seeking investments that can create exposure to CRISPR technology.

Rebuilding People And Communities

Perhaps a defining preoccupation of Tej Kohli is his aspiration to be amongst the notable philanthropists who have given back to the world. His #TejTalks blog is packed full with his musings on the benefits of eradicating blindness and building eye care infrastructure in poorer countries. It also provides Kohli’s insights on the importance of technology transfer in reducing poverty, and even why developing countries should adopt renewable energy.

Kohli returns repeatedly in his #TejTalks blog to the subject of inequality and how a big proportion of global health problems such as needless blindness and poverty arise in part from gender inequality; and how in many poorer countries, girls are disenfranchised out of education and kept at home looking after children or elderly relatives; and how some women go without healthcare because they are not deemed worthy of the expense.

Tej Kohli has a long track record of addressing such inequality when it comes to children in particular. In 2005 he started the Tej Kohli Foundation’s Funda Kohli project in Costa Rica, which has now been operational for more than fifteen years feeding hundreds of children every week. When the COVID pandemic struck in early 2020, Kohli once again launched a ‘food support’ project to tackle child hunger in his home country of the United Kingdom.

A young person eats for free at a Funda Kohli canteen in Costa Rica.

Kohli blogs in his #TejTalks blog that when Coronavirus struck, he at first donated emergency funding to a local branch of the Salvation Army in London to support the delivery of weekly food parcels to families whose children were at risk of hunger. He then partnered with Southall Community Alliance to provide food for 400 families each week.

BBC News report about how the Tej Kohli Foundation provided emergency food support in London in June 2020

Kohli’s passion for AI is matched only by this passion for giving young people a good start in life. He notes in his #TejTalks blog that:

“when children do not have consistent access to food and nutrition, they often suffer from an education slump; and that the physical affects can include a lack of energy, lower immunity and poor growth”

He also notes that social, emotional and behavioural effects from a lack of consistent nutrition include frustration, anxiety and a lack of social engagement, and that malnourished children are less able to learn.

A Tej Kohli Foundation volunteer packs food deliveries for families in need in London.

A 2019 project pioneered by Tej Kohli saw him explore a new avenue when he underwrote the production of a short film titled ‘Father Will I See Again?’. The film focuses on the prejudice and social isolation faced by two teenagers with a rare genetic condition call Xeroderma Pigmentosum. Both had been forced out of education due to their deteriorating eyesight until (spoiler alert) Kohli made an intervention to fund corneal transplants to restore their vision.

‘Father Will I See Again?’ is a documentary short about Xeroderma Pigmentosum.

Kohli cites this example of social impact entertainment as one of the ways that he hopes to educate Western audiences by highlighting the plight of people in underserved communities in poorer countries. The film was complemented by a photographic study by The Telegraph at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute.

Tej Kohli’s interest in making life changing interventions into the lives of younger people became more evident with the launch of his #FutureBionics project, which marked its first anniversary in 2021. Videos on the YouTube channel of the Tej Kohli Foundation show several disabled young people who have been the recipients of a 3D printed bionic arm courtesy of Tej Kohli.

Tej Kohli’s #FutureBionics program is giving bionic limbs to young people in the UK.

One video says that the project summarises what Tej Kohli’s not-for-profit projects are all about: making interventions into young people’s lives using technology in a way that improves their confidence and prospects. Kohli certainly appears pleased in the video.

Developing Life Changing Treatments

However, since 2019 Tej Kohli has been overseeing a gradual shift away from these types of direct interventions in favour of supporting large-scale scientific and technological solutions to global health issues. In Canada the Applied Research division of the Tej Kohli Foundation has been working on a way to cure corneal blindness without surgery; and has developed a regenerative solution that protects the eye and stimulates ‘healing’ cell regeneration.

The Tej Kohli Cornea Program in Boston, which is administered by professors from the Harvard Medical School Department of Ophthalmology, has been supporting the development of nanotechnology and DNS hybridization techniques that will make it easier to diagnose corneal disease faster and prevent a greater proportion of blindness. The Tej Kohli Cornea Program is also seed funding other technological breakthroughs.

The Tej Kohli Cornea Program in Boston is supporting new technological breakthroughs in corneal disease.

AI And The Promise Of Technology

The one thing that a journey through the YouTube videos of the Tej Kohli Foundation and the #TejTalks blogs of Ghost and Medium makes clear, is that Tej Kohli’s solid belief in the promise of new science and technology is matched only by his desire to solve major human problems. And that quite often these goals are inextricably interlinked.

However, Kohli also admits to some frustration at what he perceives to be the slow rate of adoption of AI, which is delaying his vision for a future where AI is omnipresent. He has publicly called for AI pioneers and regulators to place more emphasis and incentives toward finding pathway for the democratisation of AI into a user-friendly interface that entrepreneurs can more easily ‘plug in’ to — much like the Internet.

Kohli also points out that positive technological progress will inevitably mean unavoidable short-term disruption and greater economic inequalities. In a 2019 video Kohli postulates that the AI revolution will undoubtedly create short term uncertainty and social unrest.

In a 2019 video Tej Kohli identifies four major challenges that the world now faces.

He points to the job losses that come from automation and the short-term inequalities of globalization being compounded by ageing populations and high levels of Government debt, which will shift politics away from the prosperous centre ground and into the gridlocked margins.

Yet it is very clear that by investing $100m into Rewired to support the development of the technologies of the AI revolution, Kohli has placed himself firmly in the cohort of those who believe that despite short term upheaval, technology will eventually fulfil its promise to make the world a better place, and that artificial intelligence will be at the centre of it.

Rewired is a robotics-focused venture studio. We invest in applied science and technologies that advance machine perception.