Fred Kavli

(Photo credit: Dan Dry)

FRED KAVLI (1927-2013), a Norwegian-born U.S. citizen, was a physicist, entrepreneur, business leader, innovator, and philanthropist dedicated to supporting research and education that has a positive, long-term impact on the human condition.

He established The Kavli Foundation to advance science for the benefit of humanity. Based in Southern California, the Foundation today includes an international community of basic research institutes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. Located on three continents, the institutes are home to some of the most renowned researchers in their fields. The Foundation has also established and supported an international program of conferences, symposia, endowed professorships, and other activities. This includes being a founding partner of the biennial Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientists for their seminal advances in three research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.

From Eresfjord to California

A naturalized American citizen, Kavli was born in 1927 on a small farm in Eresfjord, Norway - a village nestled in the mountains along the Eira River. Fred Kavli would later recall these early days as giving birth to his interest in science, where he grew up experiencing “the world at its most magnificent." This interest would blossom further while studying physics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (now known as the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim). As he recalled in remarks prepared for the York Science Festival in 2007, “In those days, I used to ski across the vast white expanses of a quiet and lonely mountaintop. Sometimes the northern lights would dance across the sky and down to the white-clad peaks. During those moments, I pondered the mysteries of the universe, the planet, nature, and of man. And I would never lose that fascination.”

Building his business acumen, Fred Kavli financed his studies with proceeds from a small business he and his brother, both teenagers, ran during World War II, making wood briquettes that could be used as fuel for modified automobiles. Immediately upon completing his studies in 1955 and receiving an engineering degree, he left for Canada, and one year later came to the United States. After two years in California, he built upon his entrepreneurial spirit and experience and founded the Kavlico Corporation in Los Angeles in 1958 - later relocating to Moorpark, California. As he recalled in 2000, "Venture capital was not as easy to come by as it is now." To secure initial backing for his business idea, he placed an ad in the Los Angeles Times, "Engineer seeks financial sponsor to start own business." Under his leadership, the company would become one of the world's largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautical, automotive, and industrial applications with its products found in such landmark projects as the SR-71 Blackbird and the Space Shuttle.

Establishing The Kavli Foundation

The company would receive many distinguished awards under Fred Kavli's leadership and patent numerous technological breakthroughs. He remained CEO and sole shareholder of the company until the company was sold in 2000. He subsequently established The Kavli Foundation to support scientific research aimed at improving the quality of life for people around the world.  “I always felt strongly that I wanted to do something of value for mankind. To start a business and be successful, it’s good. But that was not my goal at all,” he would later say.

Fred Kavli at the first Kavli Prize Award Ceremony in Oslo in 2008. Photo: Scanpix

Over time, the Foundation has established and endowed research institutes at leading universities worldwide, focusing on the areas of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. As of today, there are twenty institutes. The Foundation has endowed research institutes in neuroscience at Columbia University, Yale University, the University of California San Diego, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Johns Hopkins University, The Rockefeller University, and the University of California, San Francisco. In nanoscience, there are Kavli Institutes at the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Harvard University, the Delft University of Technology and the University of California Berkeley. In astrophysics and cosmology, the institutes are at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Cambridge, Peking University and the University of Tokyo. And in theoretical physics, the institutes are at the University of California Santa Barbara and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The Foundation has also endowed seven university professorial chairs, sponsors science symposia and workshops, supports initiatives to engage the public in science and that help scientists themselves be better communicators, and supports excellence in science journalism. This includes endowing the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Foundation has also brought together scientists at meetings that facilitate open dialogue and an exchange of ideas. These meetings have precipitated such major initiatives as the Brain Activity Map proposal, which was a major catalyst for President Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative announced in April 2013.

Discussing his interest in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, Fred Kavli said, “The Kavli Institutes will pursue science at astronomical scales – the universe; at the most infinitesimal scales – atoms and molecules; and in the most complex of all things – the human brain.” He would also frame these scientific areas as the biggest, the smallest, and the most complex. “I have selected these areas of emphasis because I believe they provide the greatest opportunity for major scientific breakthroughs and will have long-range benefits for humanity.”

Explaining in 2008 his broader interest in basic science research, he said, “The Kavli Foundation supports basic science because we believe in its long-range benefit to humanity. We are looking for benefits that may lie far into the future, benefits that may be hard to predict, but as we look at the past, the benefits of science have been proven over time. The fruits of research are not always immediate and are often not predictable. Often the benefits are the result of unpredictable outcomes of an exploration that was initially motivated purely by intellectual curiosity.”

Honors and Recognition

Fred Kavli was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences, and a former member of the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A former member of the University of California President's Board on Science and Innovation, he was a Trustee of the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) Foundation. His many honors included receiving the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for Outstanding Service and honorary doctorates from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Northwestern University, and the University of Oslo. In 2011 he received the Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute, one of the oldest science education centers in the United States, and 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.

Fred Kavli receiving the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy (Credit: Carnegie Corporation)

Fred Kavli passed away on November 21, 2013 and was laid to rest in his hometown of Eresfjord, Norway.


  • 1927 - Born in Eresfjord, Møre og Romsdal county, Norway
  • 1955 - Graduated with a degree in theoretical physics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim
  • 1956 - Arrived in the United States
  • 1958 - Founded the Kavlico Corporation in Los Angeles – later relocated to Moorpark, California
  • 2000 - Established The Kavli Foundation and The Kavli Operating Institute (now merged with The Kavli Foundation)
  • 2002 - Established the first Kavli Institute; Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at the University of California Santa Barbara
  • 2006 - Elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 2006 - Received the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for Outstanding Service
  • 2008 - Received Tekna Gold Medal
  • 2008 - Received an honorary doctorate, Doctor Honoris Causa, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • 2008 - First Kavli Prizes awarded
  • 2009 - Received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Northwestern University
  • 2011 - Received the Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute
  • 2011 - Conferred the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Oslo
  • 2011 - Received Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy
  • 2013 - Fred Kavli passes away at the age of 86