USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Celebrating Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement: Fred Kavli!

Fred Kavli – Physicist, innovator, entrepreneur and philanthropist

He made millions manufacturing high-tech sensors for aircraft, cars and appliances; donated much of his fortune to establish the Kavli Foundation — a philanthropy to benefit science, and which is also known for the Kavli Prizes in Astrophysics, Nanoscience and Neuroscience

Fred Kavli

From the start, physicist Fred Kavli was a visionary and an innovator. He left his native Norway for California as a young man and later made millions manufacturing sensors for appliances, automobiles and aircraft. Then late in life he began donating much of his fortune to science in starting the Kavli Foundation, where he also established a major prize that he intended to rival the Nobel.

The science world lost a friend and an advocate when he died in November 2013 at his home in Santa Barbara, CA, at age 86. His dedication to supporting scientific research and education will undoubtedly have a long-term impact on science and the human condition.

His love for science had its beginning while growing up in Norway. Walking the mountainsides and along the fjords, watching the night sky and the amazing Northern Lights, he developed a curiosity for the universe that wasted no time blossoming into a lifelong love for science. For Fred, everything around him offered a tantalizing mystery that he knew only science could ever hope to explain. Pondering these mysteries – from the biggest to the smallest to the most complex – he would begin to nurture a dream: to one day help scientists expand the boundaries of what we know and make the world a better place for future generations.
Before emigrating to the United States in 1956 to pursue this dream, he graduated the previous year with a degree in theoretical physics from the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. Two years later, after putting an ad in a newspaper saying he was an engineer seeking financing for a new company, he created the Kavlico Corporation.

Why He’s Important: Fred Kavli first made his mark at the Kavlico Corporation where he led the development of a series of sophisticated sensors that help control a wide range of mechanical functions – from helping car and aircraft engines save fuel and limit pollution to operating dishwashers. His sensors have been used on the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and Trident and Poseidon missiles. By 2000, the company had 1,500 employees. Fred sold it that year for $340 million.

He then set his sights on his long-time dream: establishing a philanthropic foundation to benefit science. In the year 2000, he started The Kavli Foundation. The Foundation is dedicated to the goals of advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased understanding and support for scientists and their work. It works today to improve the world through enabling fundamental scientific research.

“Fred deeply understood that the discovery of new knowledge about our world is essential if we hope to answer many of the deepest and most profound questions facing humanity, said Rockell Hankin, Vice Chairman of the Board and Robert Conn, President, of The Kavli Foundation in a joint statement following the death of Fred. “He understood as well that through the advancement of science, we will create a better life for all.”

His legacy at the foundation includes: the establishment of 17 Kavli Institutes of Science on three continents, seven university endowed professorial chairs, scores of programs supporting the scientific enterprise, and the Kavli Prizes in Astrophysics, Nanoscience and Neuroscience. In 2008, the first Kavli Prizes were awarded, with recipients in each of three categories splitting $1 million. The prizes are awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo in September every other year.

Hankin and Conn add: “[Fred] understood that basic research rarely brings immediate rewards but he also understood that future generations would come to depend on the discoveries of science to create a better world. This is why he saw his commitment to science and to humankind going far beyond his own lifetime. He set up his Foundation to continue in perpetuity…”

In addition to establishing institutes and prizes, the Kavli Foundation has brought together scientists at meetings that facilitate open dialogue and an exchange of ideas.

Fred’s vision at his institution also includes supporting important educational outreach efforts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) such as the USA Science & Engineering Festival – the nation’s largest celebration of science and engineering. For the third year at the Festival, Kavli Foundation will be sponsoring the Kavli Science Video contest, an international middle and high school student competition. The contest is designed to challenge students to investigate science through video storytelling while promoting participation in STEM subjects. The video contest culminates in a popular awards show at the Festival’s finale Expo in Washington, DC.

Other Achievements: Fred was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including: serving as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; member of the Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences,former member of the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; receiving the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for Outstanding Service, and receiving the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy — which is given biennially to one or more individuals who, like Andrew Carnegie, have dedicated their private wealth to public good, and who have sustained impressive careers as philanthropists.