Kavli's strategy seems a natural extension of his entrepreneurial style, which was both visionary and practical. He and his firm, Kavlico Corporation, willingly took on outlandish projects: their first contract, in 1958, involved building a linear position feedback sensor for the atomic-powered airplane being developed by the military. (That atomic project ended in 1961, after a decade of work.) By the late 1970s Kavli had constructed a solid business filling both military and commercial orders for expensive, meticulously constructed sensors for aircraft engines. Then, when Ford Motor Company wanted durable precision sensors mass-produced cheaply, the physics engineer took a gamble and promised he could make the switch. His bid won out over 41 others. "Everybody I talked to said, 'You're crazy,'" Kavli recounts.�
The technological leap of faith into cars paid off, helping to transform Kavlico into a $225-million, 1,400-employee manufacturer. Its instruments can be found throughout an automobile's power train and chassis, even measuring the weight of a passenger so that air bags inflate properly. Five years ago a Canadian electronics firm paid $331 million for the business. Kavli dedicated much of the proceeds, along with his trust in the power of creative thinking, to science.
Kavli uses no application or peer-review process but consults a web of contacts in the same way a headhunter searches for executives. The foundation has chosen disciplines that are already acknowledged "growth" areas in science and has funded senior leaders within them. Eric Kandel, for instance, who directs the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University, shared the 2000 Nobel Prize for his insights on signal transduction in the nervous system. Pasko Rakic, who heads up the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale University, is also a textbook name; his research has shaped scientific understanding of human brain development.
How these well-established investigators go forward will be critical, suggests Susan M. Fitzpatrick, a neurobiologist who is vice president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation. "Will they pursue the kind of research that would not be going on otherwise?" Fitzpatrick asks. Small foundations (assets less than about $100 million) can do more than just "add on" to federal grants--Kavli institutes in Chicago and Santa Barbara, for instance, already get National Science Foundation money. Rather they best serve science by responding flexibly to emerging needs, Fitzpatrick believes.
To let scientists loose on their dream ideas, Kavli says he negotiates their institutions' support and then creates or builds on research centers already in place: "What we do is very highly leveraged; that's the secret." He and Auston hope Kavli institute researchers will probe new depths as they bump into one another at interdisciplinary seminars. One field can lend strategies to another--for instance, cosmology's computational expertise might help in neuroscience and nanoscience. At the Kavli Operating Institute, such collaborations have led to studies such as one of coastal erosion.
Kavli is also exploring opportunities in the Pacific Rim and would like to fund at least one more institute in Europe, aside from the one at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. And he will begin handing out his three $1-million prizes--in astrophysics, neuroscience and nanoscience--in 2008 in Norway. These awards will help build public awareness and appreciation for science, Kavli hopes.
For now, he is focusing on his commercial real-estate investments, which he knows will be necessary to keep the funds flowing. Instead of scientific journals, various travel, art-collecting and business magazines dot his sleeping quarters. "No, I don't get to dabble in science," he laughs. "I'm trying to make money so I can spend money." On science, of course.