Philanthropist of science

Fred Kavli, Kavli Foundation’s founder and chairman. © Stig Andersen/Nordisk Film
Fred Kavli, Kavli Foundation’s founder and chairman. © Stig Andersen/Nordisk Film

Although the name is only just starting to be mentioned in Europe’s media, the Kavli Foundation is already a highly regarded point of reference for the world’s science elite. This is a portrait of rags-to-riches Fred Kavli whose abiding passion is the science of tomorrow.

Kavli is the archetypal made-in-the-USA multimillionaire whose chosen niche was the high technology sector of recent decades. Norwegian engineering physicist, Fred Kavli, arrived in California at the age of 28 without a penny to his name but went on to enjoy a brilliant career. Armed only with his degree, he boldly placed a classified ad in the newspaper (“Engineer seeking financial backing to start own business…”).

Sixth sense about sensors

The young immigrant had a hunch that sensors had a promising future. This was back in the late 1950s, when the space race and the deployment of military and civil aeronautics were just beginning. Sensors were the tiny intelligent mechanical-electronic systems at the core of all the rockets and other flying machines being designed at the time. Kavli was not interested in the invention side of sensors though. What he did was to set up a company to develop and produce them. “The good thing about America is that if you have an idea, you can muddle through by asking the right questions and locating the people who know how to find the answers,” Kavli explains.

His company, with the plain old title of Kavlico Corporation, was built upon this principle. Its first contract, with General Electric, was to make the sensor systems for a future nuclear-powered aircraft. Although people initially believed in the future of nuclear-powered aircraft, the project folded up a few years later. In the meantime, though, the young Kavlico Corporation had amassed a lot of expertise and before long it started to carve out an ever larger share of the American and international aerospace market, which continued to boom for several decades.

A success-driven man

As all those who work with him will testify, Fred Kavli really is a success-driven man. With remarkable pragmatism and formidable insight, he will see any venture he undertakes through to the very end. This was already evident from his boyhood spent deep in the countryside in the southern Norwegian region of Eresfjord. Kavli was 13 years old when his country was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940. He demonstrated his down-to-earth approach by setting up a workshop, with his older brother, to process and compress briquettes of dried wood used to fuel cars. Kavli’s interests were not confined to business though. As a youth, he also tried his hand at the nocturnal exploits of the Norwegian underground resistance movement. He was schooled by the all-powerful natural world, of which he has an enduring memory, coupled with an interest in science that explores the secrets of the infinitesimally large and the infinitesimally small.

Despite also amassing a fortune in ambitious real estate projects, this captain of high technology retained his fascination with the secret world of science. In 2000, at the age of 72 and recently retired from business after selling his majority holding in Kavlico at the most lucrative time in the financial cycle, the now enormously rich businessman announced that he was switching to scientific philanthropy. The Kavli label now became the flag of a foundation of the same name. The elderly Norwegian – who had renewed links with his native land – assigned the foundation the exclusive task of furthering knowledge in areas in which it is impossible to predict when and where (or even if) there will be tangible and marketable outcomes.

A foundation off to a flying start

At first sight, Kavli’s new foundation might seem a little quixotic. But this would be to underestimate the resources of this success-driven man, who embarked on the venture with a carefully considered entrepreneurial strategy and his indomitable determination to succeed. From the outset, Kavli Foundation lay down its highly specific operational rules and areas of predilection. These would be limited to basic research in physics and astrophysics, nanotechnology and neurobiology. With a close team of associates, the founder contacted laboratories that he felt to be at the forefront of the most interesting research and offered them a very specific deal. Each of the units had to set up a Kavli Institute, a sort of incubator where carefully hand-picked researchers would act like astronaunts, feeling their way and pushing out the frontiers of the scientific universe where the outcomes are totally unknown. The standard grant assigned to each institute is $7.5 million, which can be used to invest in infrastructure or for the advanced exploitation of existing capabilities. The contract includes a reciprocity condition: the chosen host institutions must fork out the equivalent amount to double the available funding.

The new Kavli Foundation has not gone unnoticed. The recipe has proven to be a winner. In the space of a few years, Kavli Institutes have mushroomed and are rapidly carving out a niche in a number of the most powerful bastions of research: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. Fred Kavli, still at the helm, is careful not to restrict them to the New World though. There are now a total of 15 Kavli Institutes worldwide, including three in Europe(1) and two in China. The total funding for the institutes now tops US$ 100 million. And their scientists are not just anybody either. Since 2004, three Nobel prizes (in physics, astrophysics and neurobiology) have been awarded to Kavli protégés(2).

Parallels between two Alfreds

This triple achievement has served to enhance the Kavli label’s remarkable reputation among the scientific community, which is just what our still-spry Norwegian intended. As an entrepreneur, he wants his ‘trademark’ to become synonymous with the height of excellence. In September 2008, his second move was to create a new Kavli science prize in each of his institutes’ three specialist fields of research. The prize was awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences amid great pomp at a ceremony attended by the country’s sovereigns.

The event was widely reported among the wider scientific community. Each of the Kavli prizes is worth $1 million. This is not far short of the $1.3 million Nobel prizes. Is the intention to poach on the established territory of the Stockholm awards? “No,” says the Kavli prize founder, adding that the Nobel prizes are awarded for the outcome of finished research, while the aim of the Kavli prizes is to encourage unfinished research, irrespective of the outcome.

All the same, the new science benefactor who came on the scene at the turn of the 21st century is blazing a trail uncannily reminiscent of that of Alfred Nobel who, for more than a century, successfully attached his name to all the leading lights of science. For both Alfreds – Kavli and Nobel – the concern was not to steal the limelight but to introduce people to science. Kavli and Nobel are only front men. Like his Swedish industrial predecessor, the multimillionaire Norwegian-born American wishes to support the science of his very own 21st century, by highlighting the inestimable value of dispassionate basic research for the generations to come.

Didier Buysse

  1. Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, Delft University of Technology (NL); Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge (UK).
  2. Californian researcher Franck Gross for physics, Frank Wilczek from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) for astrophysics and Richard Axel from the University of Columbia (US) for neurobiology.


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