Best known for his mission to end blindness in India, here technologist, entrepreneur, real estate investor and #TejTalks author Tej Kohli talks about how he has been investing in technologies with the potential to make the world a better place...
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated technological adoption across a broad spectrum of applications, from technologies designed to support remote working through to the accelerated application of artificial intelligence to optimise healthcare efficacy.
For Tej Kohli, Chairman of Kohli Ventures, owner of the Zibel Real Estate portfolio and author of the #TejTalks blog, the recent acceleration is the latest link in an ongoing chain reaction of rapid technological progression that is not just creating enormous upheaval, but also the opportunity to transform entire industries - and even human life - for the better.
Tej Kohli is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, and a lifelong technologist who has been discreetly investing in deep tech since selling his companies in 2006. Tej Kohli believes that the enhanced productivity of AI becoming omnipresent will help human life to flourish, and that DNA programming will soon mean that human life expectancy will exceed 100 years.
In this interview, Tej Kohli shares some of the exciting technologies being developed by companies that he has invested in...
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a family of DNA sequences. It is a recent scientific discovery which provides a way of making specific and precise changes to the DNA that is contained within living cells. Kohli says that this ability to ‘cut’ DNA in specific places is revolutionising the life sciences and he is actively looking for investment exposure.
"Typically I like to get in early on this type of innovation before any other investors, but unfortunately CRISPR has already become big business and the values of companies that have even a tenuous connection to it have already skyrocketed". Kohli recently advised UK investors that there are still good opportunities to invest in the platforms that will be used to develop CRISPR therapies in his 'stocks and shares' column for The Motley Fool.
Two women scientists called Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna recently won the Nobel prize. Their discovery has contributed to a long list of new discoveries in research, medicine, and cancer therapies. It’s first therapeutic application will likely be to treat sickle cell anaemia, a blood disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. "As a father of a daughter I'm proud to see this achievement. When historians look back I strongly believe that these two women will be held in similar esteem as Marie Curie and Dorothy Hodgkin.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
The fourth industrial revolution promises to merge the biological and technological and Tej Kohli is very bullish about its potential for exponential growth. "The fourth industrial revolution has been happening for a long time" says Tej Kohli, "I suggest that whilst we are already amidst the fourth industrial revolution, we are absolutely nowhere near its peak yet. What is particularly exciting is the joint application of disciplines that were previously considered entirely separate from each other". Kohli says that the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted this, with an accelerated application of artificial intelligence in the healthcare and medical research spheres in response to the urgent need to get results from vaccine research and to optimise global healthcare delivery.
Kohli also points to some of his not-for-profit projects as examples of how the fourth industrial revolution is improving human life. "Take my Tej Kohli Foundation #FutureBionics project as an example. It combines robotics with 3D printing to create bionic limbs at a fraction of what they cost before, and that is a direct result of combining emerging technologies in new and novel ways".
Olfactory Sensor Technologies
Kohli stresses the need to be cautious not to give away any proprietary secrets about his deep tech investments. "It’s important to remember that regardless of the accelerated speed of technological progress, it can still take many years to get new products and technologies past regulators. But for me one of the most interesting companies I am invested in is Silicon Valley-based Aromyx" says Kohli.
Aromyx was originally funded by DARPA before seeking investors to go private. Tej Kohli became the biggest investor in Aromyx when he provided more than 50% of their series A fundraising in 2017. The company has developed an olfactory sensor technology which enables the digitisation of taste and smell.
"When I first invested in Aromyx, it was not fully clear what the final commercial application might be" says Kohli, "but I could see that there was a big opportunity to create new modalities of data about taste and smell which could then be used for machine learning". According to Tej Kohli, it followed that this data could eventually enable robots and computers to be able to taste and to smell.
In 2019 Aromyx completed a large pilot project with one of the world’s largest chemical companies. The pilot focused on plastics recycling. "If plastics demand follows its current trajectory, plastics-waste volumes will grow from 260 million tons per year now to 460 million tons per year by 2030, taking what is already a serious environmental problem to a whole new level" says Kohli. "The ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight)".
According to Tej Kohli a major barrier to the wide-scale adoption of plastic recycling is in the sorting of plastics into those which are viable (or not) for recycling depending on their odour. Currently, human noses are relied on by recycling sorting centres to make these decisions, which is hugely imprecise and therefore inefficient. Kohli says that transforming this system could prevent over one billion tons of plastic from entering the environment each year, with an equivalent greenhouse gas reduction of 1.6 GtCO2e.
According to National Geographic, less than 10% of plastic gets recycled. But with the Aromyx technology eventually installed in plastics recycling sorting centres all around the world, and robots making decisions instead of humans, the pilot study suggests that plastics recycling rates could be enhanced to be equivalent to those for paper (64%) and cardboard (70%). "That would be a big achievement" says Kohli.
Kohli also notes the potential humanitarian applications for Aromyx. "In poor and remote rural areas, and in areas of humanitarian crisis such as refugee camps, food supply chains can be long and unreliable, with many foods spoiled before arriving at the final recipient. Given limited local medical resources, disease and illnesses derived from ‘bad’ food can be pervasive and devastating. So imagine the impact if we could use olfactory sensor technology to solve this problem".
The intention is to introduce the Aromyx sensor into the food distribution chain so that foods that would be harmful can be removed – for example by humanitarian or aid agencies - before reaching the end recipient. Tej Kohli has form in this area and his efforts to support poor and underserved communities are well documented: in 2019 the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute cured and alleviated the blindness of tens of thousands of the world's poorest people, largely in remote and rural communities that were chronically underserved for healthcare.
Kohli continually reiterates his desire not to over promise and under deliver, but notes that companies like Aromyx could one day in the future explore the application of olfactory sensors for the early detection of cancer (by smell) or even the detection of diseases such as COVID-19. "But we should not yet speculate on the practical or commercial viability of these applications" says Kohli, "It's still far too early to be able to say anything with any kind of certainty".
For an example of a company he is invested in with technology that is already commercially active, Kohli points to Boston-based Raptor Maps. Raptor Maps has developed proprietary artificial intelligence and drone technology which is being applied to optimise large-scale solar power generation sites.
"The Raptor Maps solution comprises AI and machine learning, geospatial technology and software integration" says Kohli, "the company is already providing a turnkey solution to some of the biggest solar farms in the world". Kohli says it is self-evident that improving the efficacy of renewable power generation can only be a good thing for the world, and he hopes that Raptor Maps will become a global leader as renewable power generation grows exponentially.
Robotics And Bionics
One area where Kohli's not-for-profit and commercial activities cross over is UK-based Open Bionics. The not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation has an ongoing #FutureBionics program that is funding bionic arms from Open Bionics for limb different young people in the United Kingdom, but long before launching the #FutureBionics program in 2019, Tej Kohli was an early investor in OpenBionics.
The company is developing affordable assistive devices that enhance the human body, starting with the ‘Hero Arm', which is a stylish multi-grip 3D printed bionic arm. Open Bionics design and also manufacture the arms in their 3D printing farm in Bristol, and they have won a shelf full of awards for excellence in robotics.
"The initial attraction for me was the combination of robotics and engineering with 3D printing. But then as the company has progressed, and I’ve met more young people who have received a Hero Arm, I have realised that what OpenBionics is actually ‘providing’ is improved confidence and prospects. Their arm design really does turn disability into a ‘super power’ which I believe has a tremendous long term impact on the lives of the younger people who wear it".
Regenerative Medicine & Organ Engineering
Tej Kohli has a long term interest in biotech innovations and is the sole owner of Florida based Detraxi following a buyout. Detraxi has developed proprietary new biotechnology which has completed pre-clinical trials at John’s Hopkins University. Detraxi already has one product in the market and licensing deals for the broader intellectual property are already in place in some Asian countries, even though the company still has some years to go to secure full regulatory approval.
Tej Kohli refuses to talk about the specifics of the technology or even how it might be applied, but shares that Detraxi is focused on solving four major problems that the world currently faces. "If we suspend our disbelief for a moment and fast forward ten years" says Kohli, "then Detraxi technology might be playing a role in ending the global blood shortage. It might help to end the global organ donation crisis. Detraxi could also enable organs to be engineered and regenerated outside of the body to eliminate disease. And it could also be providing enhanced diagnostics for a more efficient diagnosis of health disorders and diseases".
Tej Kohli stresses however that biotechnology is "a tough business". Kohli says that as an investor you need a lot of patience and a high appetite for risk, but that the problems that Detraxi has a genuine potential to solve was so immense that it balanced the risk calculus in favour of a full buyout.
"Take blood donation for example" says Kohli, "18% of the global population live in developed countries, but they account for just 50% of blood donations worldwide. Clearly that means that in parts of the world there is a chronic blood shortage".
Tej Kohli explains that in Africa, 52% of children die within 8 hours of hospital admission for severe anaemia when they are unable to receive an immediate blood transfusion. But when a life-saving blood transfusion is available, the death rate plummets to 4%. This trend plays out across a spectrum of applications, not least maternal mortality during labour due to blood loss. "For me, if there was a good chance that we might solve these problems, then I wanted to make it happen" says Kohli, "But let's not forget Detraxi is a commercial investment so I also expect an investment return eventually".
Engineering and regenerating human organs outside of the body might sound like science fiction, but Tej Kohli believes that it could one day become a reality. "First of all let's not forget that there is a good chance DNA programming might mean that in the future, health problems such as eliminating disease or curing cancers might be solved without chemotherapy and without having to remove or transplant organs. But setting that aside, with new developments in regenerative medicine, I could also see a future where, for example, an organ with cancer could be removed from the body and then have chemotherapy applied to it whilst outside of the body, and then be put back into the patient once it is cured of cancer. And with the Detraxi technology, this is a possibility, though not yet a reality".
Between 2006 and 2015 Kohli made high profile exits from a number of companies where he had become the sole or majority shareholder. "Knowing when to exit is the hardest thing of all" says Kohli, "you spend years evangelising and having faith in a company, and you can watch its investment value grow exponentially each year, which is great, but then there's always an underlying inner conflict when it comes to timing an exit. Fortunately I've been very lucky in the exits I have made".
Kohli says that his own experience of divesting the divisions of the company that he built between 1999 and 2006 taught him not to be too sentimental about making an exit. Kohli sold off the subsidiaries of his company in a series of high value trade sales before eventually also exiting the holding company. One of the companies was Estacion Tramar, which Kohli founded in 2004. It was sold in 2008 in a deal that paid earn out payments to Kohli for the next eight years. "In many ways those regular earn out payments spurred me on as an investor to find tax efficient places to invest the incoming streams of liquidity".
Most recently Tej Kohli sold his stake in London based company Seldon, which enables enterprises to use AI to manage their big data and to unlock the benefits of the network effect. Kohli says: "Ultimately Seldon was about improving efficiency, which is good overall, but it did not have humanitarian applications. My decision to exit was just practical – the value of the investment had grown by three fold in less than three years, and there were some other large institutional investors who wanted to lead Seldon and the investment going forward, so it was time to exit".
Forward Looking Investments
When questioned on his future ambitions Tej Kohli reiterates his burning desire to invest in a major CRISPR project. "I have been a long-term evangelist of DNA programming and I am the ideal investor in this space" say Kohli, adding that much like Detraxi, these types of investments require a lot of patience and a big appetite for risk, because they can take years to develop and attain regulatory approvals. Kohli says the potential social impact is often worth the high risks.
"I also remain a big believer in the way that artificial intelligence will transform the world as it becomes omnipresent" says Kohli. He has been vocal in the past about his belief that the global artificial intelligence economy will be one day be worth $150 trillion because of the huge productivity gains that it will create. "If you look through history, every time that technology has accelerated productivity, whether it has been during the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution, humanity has always flourished as we make more from what we have" says Kohli.
Despite his passions as a technology investor and the fortune that Kohli has built during a series of highly profitable exits, he is best known for this not-for-profit activities. Many of the themes that he is most passionate about are also manifest in the projects of his Tej Kohli Foundation. "We continue to make grassroots interventions to prevent, alleviate and cure blindness" says Kohli, "And we are also tackling problems such as childhood hunger at the grassroots level in the United Kingdom and in South America. I would like to launch a really large grassroots project in 2021: something that helps many millions of people."
Under the stewardship of Tej Kohli, the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute is also investing in research and novel new solutions through the Tej Kohli Cornea Program in Boston and through the 'Applied Research' division. "The technologies that we are investing in on a not-for-profit basis encompass DNA hybridization and regenerative medicine, and so in some ways mirror my commercial investment interests. But in my not-for-profit life the priority is simply in developing these new technologies, democratizing them, and getting them into the communities where they needed at a price that is affordable, scalable and accessible. All in all, the world in an exciting place right now".
For more information about Tej Kohli please visit:
Tej Kohli’s Medium.com #TejTalks blog dedicated to philanthropy:
Tej Kohli's Ghost blog #TejTalks blog dedicated to commercial activities:
Tej Kohli official website:
Kohli Ventures official website:
Tej Kohli Foundation official website:
Tej Kohli Foundation YouTube channel:
Tej Kolhi Cornea Institute (UK) official website:
Tej Kohli Motley Fool Investment Column:
Tej Kohli Project Syndicate Column:
Tej Kohli on Twitter: