As a farm boy in Norway, Fred Kavli vowed to one day make an impact on mankind that would last for centuries.
“I was always ambitious,” the soft-spoken multimillionaire says with a chuckle as he sits in the living room of his 12,000-square-foot, oceanfront home in Santa Barbara.
Now 80, the retired industrialist is launching what he hopes will be the 21st century’s equivalent to the Nobel Prizes. In the process, he’s looking to spark a renaissance in basic research in nanoscience, astrophysics and neuroscience, three scientific fields he believes will most help the human race in the future.
Scientists and others say Kavli is unique in having a vision to fund exploratory research unlikely to yield quick results, a personal fortune in the neighborhood of $600 million to finance it, and the entrepreneurial skills to make it happen.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone else like him,” said Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “He’s really investing in pure science, [and] he’s got a very long-term view.”
Since launching in 2000, the Kavli Foundation has established research institutes at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and 12 other top universities in the United States, Europe and China.
And on Wednesday, the winners of the first Kavli Prizes in nanoscience (the study of molecules and atoms), astrophysics (the study of the universe) and neuroscience (the study of the brain) will be announced.
The three will receive $1 million each at a September ceremony in Oslo. The prizes are intended to reward younger scientists and not be seen as career achievement awards, as the Nobel Prizes sometimes are.
Within the scientific world, Kavli has created a well-known and respected brand in just eight years by attracting top scholars, handing them money and then not expecting fast answers -- as private and government funding typically demand.
“He’s literally thinking in a hundred-year time scale,” said Charles M. Vest, a Kavli board member and president of the National Academy of Engineering. “So few people, especially in the Western world, are like that.”
Within the scientific world, some leaders are predicting the publicity generated by the Kavli Prizes will eventually make Fred Kavli a household name.
The prizes will create a “huge, quantum step up in his name recognition,” Cicerone said. “And the prizes are going to take on a lot more meaning year after year.”
Kavli -- a bald man with a kind face and the trim build of an athlete -- said he waited until this year to hand out his prizes because he wanted the recipients to know who was honoring them.
“I didn’t want them to think it was a joke when we told them we’re giving them $1 million,” said Kavli, with a slight Norwegian accent.
Kavli’s fascination with science began when he was a youngster living on his parents’ Norwegian farm, surrounded by nature. The northern lights, especially, held him spellbound.
“I used to ski across the vast white expanses of a quiet and lonely mountaintop,” Kavli said when he announced his prizes in 2006 in Oslo. “At times, the heavens would be aflame with the northern lights, shifting and dancing across the sky and down to the white-clad peaks. In the stillness and solitude . . . I pondered the mysteries of the universe, the planet, nature and of man. I’m still pondering.”
In addition to his unquenchable wonder for nature, the young Kavli discovered a knack for business. At 13, he and his older brother sold planks of wood to furniture-makers and wooden briquettes for car fuel -- both products in demand because of shortages in German-occupied Norway during World War II.
Kavli said he earned enough money to pay his way through college. After graduating in 1955 with a physics degree, Kavli wanted to emigrate to California, in part because the entrepreneurial spirit of America beckoned but also because it was far from the Norwegian winters.
Kavli arrived in Southern California in 1956 and started working for a company that made high-tech sensors for missiles.
Two years later, he placed a classified ad in The Times that read: “Engineer seeking financial backing to start own business.”
This led to the creation of Kavlico, which developed sensors for military and civilian aircraft, the space shuttle and automobiles. With some of his profits, he invested in Southern California real estate, using expertise he gained taking night courses at UCLA. His real estate holdings now have an estimated value of about $300 million.
After selling Kavlico in 2000 for $345 million, Kavli, who is divorced with two grown children, started making good on his childhood vow to provide something for mankind’s long-term benefit. He believed that investing narrowly in nanoscience, astrophysics and neuroscience research provided the best chance to affect future generations.
He also wanted to fill the vacuum created by the dearth of corporate and public funding for basic research, which didn’t promise specific or quick results but often had led to science’s great discoveries, such as penicillin, X-rays and the polio vaccine.
“It’s harder to make the case [for basic research] in a world looking for short-term answers,” said Roger Blandford, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University.
Kavli “made a huge difference in championing” exploratory research,” Blandford said.
Kavli’s initial plan was to endow chairs at universities for scholars doing research in his three pet fields, but he was talked out of it by David Gross, a friend who headed UC Santa Barbara’s Institute of Theoretical Physics. .
The professor told Kavli he’d get more bang for his buck by opening research institutes at major universities, and UC Santa Barbara would be a good place to start.
“He had a motive to do that,” Kavli said, “but he sold me on the idea.”
The Kavli Foundation provides $7.5 million to launch institutes at prestigious universities, which have to match the money.
So far, the scholars have been chosen well. In 2004, three of the eight recipients of Nobel Prizes in science worked at Kavli institutes.
Kavli views his foundation as an angel investor for promising research that can’t attract other funding.
“A very small amount of money at the very beginning can make a big difference,” he said.
Kavli looks at least a decade younger than his 80 years, due in part to his daily workouts that include weightlifting and 45 minutes on a stationary bike. Several days a week he plays singles tennis on his estate.
Still, he knows his remaining time is limited. When he’s not in his Oxnard office, he’s working from home -- even on the weekends -- considering where to plant more Kavli institutes (he hopes to create five more within six years), planning international symposiums, locking in the foundation’s mission to ensure its long-term success, studying the latest research, and managing his real estate holdings that will eventually provide a major chunk of the foundation’s endowment.
“I’d never thought I’d work as hard as I do at 80,” he said, adding that he does it because he believes he’s leaving a proper legacy.
“Science is going to be here forever,” he said. “The more questions we solve, the more we find.”