Editor's note: We are republishing this story, originally posted June 27, 2005, as a tribute to business leader, physicist and entrepreneur Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of The Kavli Foundation, who died November 21.
Fred Kavli collects Norwegian oil paintings and ornate Asian vases, installing them lovingly around his sprawling, 12,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif. But his most heartfelt passion has nothing to do with art or antiques. As he gazes toward an orange sunset, Kavli begins to speak of life's fundamental questions. He wonders about exploring the processes of the universe, generating nonpolluting forms of power and developing lightweight but strong nanoscale materials. Instead of spending his fortune on treasures of the past, he has dedicated it to these, the possibilities of the future.
Over the past five years, the 77-year-old Norwegian-born businessman has funded 10 basic science research institutes, created an operating foundation to explore pet research questions and laid out a plan to offer three $1-million awards biannually that would compete with the Nobel Prizes. "Because I believe in it," this unusual philanthropist explains simply, as if the reasons were obvious. "Life as we know it today would not be possible without science."
The Kavli Foundation began relatively quietly by contributing $7.5 million to a center for theoretical physics at the University of Santa Barbara in 2001 and then to an institute for particle astrophysics and cosmology at Stanford University. A year ago the foundation joined the ranks of notable small grantors by making endowments to eight more institutes at major universities. But instead of following the funding trend toward seeking nearer-term, measurable returns, the foundation pays for nondirected research in its three areas of interest: astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. After Kavli finds the right people and institutions, it's hands-off. He just asks for an annual report and the occasional invitation to a lecture or event.
Kavli, who studied engineering physics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says he picked these fields because he personally finds them fascinating--and because he thinks they will remain that way to scientists for many years. Even though he is committed to open-ended inquiry, Kavli takes a practical view of the potential rewards. "As we gain more knowledge about materials and processes in the universe, that could open up benefits that we can't even imagine," he says. "But you have to be willing to fund science without knowledge of the benefits."
Although the number of philanthropic organizations has doubled since 1990, the share for science slipped to 2.4 percent in 2003 from 4 percent a decade earlier, according to the Foundation Center, a New York City-based nonprofit that tracks funding trends. The Kavli Foundation stands out even from the handful of those that do finance basic research, insists James Langer, vice president of the National Academy of Sciences. Kavli's own passion about the fields he sponsors, combined with his willingness to let researchers run with their ideas, sets him apart.
Kavli's approach also diverges from the increasingly utilitarian focus of both academic and government-funded research, points out David Auston, who serves as president of the foundation and its sister organization, the Kavli Operating Institute in Santa Barbara. Both the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation--long known for their commitment to basic science--have nanotechnology initiatives, for instance. But Auston believes the agencies unrealistically expect these programs to deliver useful tools and applications rapidly. To win funds from any source, scientists must usually frame their ideas in the context of studies already completed and short-term impact. "It's a major impediment to significant discovery," remarks Auston, a former Bell Laboratories physicist. "The really neat things don't come easily--they come with risk."
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.