He might be the most active philanthropist you've never heard of: a retired technology entrepreneur putting his stamp on science research centers at the world's top universities and sponsoring what he hopes will be 21st-century versions of the Nobel Prizes.
With his efficient use of a roughly $600 million fortune — big but hardly Bill Gates-ishly mind-boggling — that 79-year-old philanthropist, Fred Kavli, could end up having an outsized impact on next-generation science.
Many scientists lament that money for basic research is becoming harder to obtain, as governments, corporations and other big funders seek specific breakthroughs that can be applied relatively quickly. Kavli, however, is adamant about giving money for open-ended research whose ultimate fruits may not yet be in sight.
"He's quite visionary," said Eric Kandel, Nobel-winning director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University. "We need more people like him."
Just a few years after seriously beginning his mission to stimulate advances in nanotechnology, neuroscience and astronomy, Kavli has launched 14 research centers in academia's most rarified halls, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Caltech and MIT, plus schools in Europe and China. While some are using Kavli's money to probe the nature of "dark matter" in the universe, others are exploring the minuscule brain structures active in human cognition.
Research money rare
Although Kavli requires universities to match much of the $7.5 million he typically puts up for an institute, no school has turned him down. Many find money for basic research so rare that they send Kavli's foundation unsolicited appeals.
Kavli expects to eventually create 20 such centers. And beginning in 2008, $1 million Kavli Prizes in nanotech, neuroscience and astrophysics will be awarded every two years by the Academy of Sciences in Norway, where Kavli was born and first yearned to better grasp man's place in the universe.
"I like to look far into the future," Kavli said in his slightly lilting Norwegian accent. "I think it's important for the benefit of all human beings."
Elements of Kavli's philanthropy have been seen before. He's not the first industrialist to disperse money to multiple academic centers. Arnold Beckman, an inventor who died in 2004 at age 104, spread at least $400 million to support research and education at several institutions.
And while Kavli's $7.5 million to inaugurate an institute is nice, by some measures it's small. New academic buildings, for example, often cost tens of millions of dollars.
What makes Kavli's model notable is that it resembles how a business builds a brand.
Between the Kavli institutes — expected to be fed by an annual pool of $20 million after his death — the Kavli Prizes and regular Kavli gatherings of Kavli-funded researchers, Kavli hopes to create something larger than the sum of its parts: a growing organism of avant-garde research.
"Fred's interest really is more abstract than most, because he wants to fund the very best of science and doesn't care where it is," said David Baltimore, a Nobel-winning biologist who helped launch Caltech's Kavli Institute for Nanoscience when he was the school's president.
The Kavli Foundation's momentum is widely credited to its president, David Auston, a former Bell Laboratories engineer who later headed Case Western Reserve University. Auston's connections and credibility have opened doors for the foundation, which is based in Oxnard, Calif.
But Kavli is not just the guy who signs the checks. The vision at work here germinated in him long ago, when Kavli was a young dreamer in Norway, marveling at the ethereal glow of the Northern Lights.
Kavli appears to have always set his sights on achieving. At age 13, when World War II led to fuel shortages in Norway, he and his brother started a business making wood briquettes that could be burned to power cars. They also sold planks to furniture factories.
He studied physics in college, then left Norway in 1955 for America with a classic immigrant's narrative. "I was ambitious, let's face it," he said with a wink.
After a year in Canada, Kavli joined a seven-employee Los Angeles company that developed feedback flight controls for Atlas missiles. Kavli rose to chief of engineering, but his entrepreneurial side beckoned. So he put a simple ad in the newspaper: "Engineer seeking financial backing to start own business."
What emerged was Kavlico, which specialized in navigational sensors for the defense and aircraft industries.
Kavli invested much of his resulting wealth in Southern California real estate. He also became a well-known community donor near his company's headquarters in Moorpark, Calif., putting his name on a local performing arts center, and endowed some university professorships.
But not until he sold Kavlico for $345 million to C-Mac Industries Inc. in 2000 did Kavli set his sights on a larger-scale legacy.
"It's important to realize this guy's kept a very low profile his whole life, until he came out with all this," said Charles Vest, former MIT president and a member of the foundation's board. "It's not the kind of ego you see somewhat frequently in some parts of the entrepreneurial community."
'Fully fledged optimist'
The foundation is getting most of Kavli's money — the divorced Kavli does not believe in leaving significant sums to his two children — and his businessman's emphasis on streamlining. Its operations essentially consist of just Kavli, Auston, a communications director and a fund manager.
"One of the problems with philanthropy is to make it effective, and to use money so that it's not wasted away," Kavli said.
That principle is partly why the foundation expects universities to put up resources of their own to snare a Kavli Institute. Kavli and Auston believe the rule ensures a university is committed to supporting its researchers in the long term.
Kavli has few concrete expectations for scientists who get his money, other than that they attend interdisciplinary gatherings every so often to share ideas.
"We don't try to tell the institutes what to do," he said. "We try to just select the very best science teams and institutions and support them in what they want to do, and we expect them to choose the very best course of action."
Kavli is confident this simple recipe will grease the wheels for breakthroughs that deepen our knowledge of the universe or help solve our most intractable problems, from medicine to energy. "I am," he said, "a fully fledged optimist."