Fred Kavli: A Dreamer Making Dreams Come True

Article Courtesy of Vesterheim Magazine; Originally published Spring, 2012
Written by Charlie Langton

Fred Kavli at his desk at The Kavli Foundation officesFred Kavli at his desk at The Kavli Foundation offices, Oxnard, California. Photo: Charlie Langton, Vesterheim.

Norway gave me the foundation, and the U.S. gave me everything else. . . . I used to say that in America you don’t really need to know anything, you just need to know how to ask the right questions.
—Fred Kavli

WHEN, AS A BOY IN MØRE OG ROMSDAL, Fred Kavli sprawled on his back in an Eresfjord field to gaze up at the splendor of Norwegian stars and dream about his future, he was probably as close to nature and to the elemental workings of the universe as many of us could ever hope to be. But for Kavli, those early dreams were just the beginnings of a remarkable life in physics, engineering, and entrepreneurship—and abiding interests in all theoretical physics (especially astrophysics), nanoscience, and neuroscience—or, as he puts it, “the largest and the smallest and the mind that brings it all together.”1

It is unlikely that the young man from western Norway could imagine just how far those early dreams would take him. Nor is it probable that the old saying “In dreams begin responsibility” ever crossed his mind as he lay marvelling at the Northern Lights. That was a lesson he learned and embraced along the way. In addition to everything else he would accomplish, he would become a noted philanthropist, environmentalist, and founder of the Kavli Foundation and the Kavli Prizes, which support creativity and advances in the three scientific areas he loves.

As unique as Fred Kavli’s story is, it also shares many of the qualities that make all immigrant stories remarkable: vision, ingenuity, flexibility, adaptability, determination, and hard work. In that respect, it is a classic American story,a classic Norwegian-American story. “Norway gave me the foundation,” Kavli says, “and the U.S. gave me everything else.” And at the top of that list of “everything else” was opportunity.

EresfjordEresfjord, where Fred Kavli was born and raised, is a long, flat valley stretching between a lake at one end and the ocean at the other. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

American opportunity first attracted Kavli’s father, Johan Kavli, who came to San Francisco when he was just over 15 years old and stayed for almost 14 years. When he returned to Norway, Johan married Lina Moe and settled on her family’s farm, called Moen. “I heard a lot about America from my father, and he enjoyed it very much,” Kavli says. “But he got stuck on the farm,” he adds laughing. “He did farming quite well, but it probably wasn’t really what he would most like to do.”

Fred was the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls, and Fred was much influenced by his elder brother, Aslak. Their youth was marked by the Nazi occupation of Norway, and Kavli remembers one incident when perhaps Aslak’s influence wasn’t the best. He relates that, when Aslak was about 17 years old and he was about 10, the Germans:

. . . sent planes over Eresfjord of all places and guns were going off in some areas. My older brother and I went up into the woods behind our house and he had one of those big rifles and he shot at the plane, but the plane noticed it and came very close to us, and then came very close again, looking for us, but we stood behind a big tree so they couldn’t see us. You know, they could have bombed the house and everything else. . . . It was not a very wise thing to do.

Perhaps Aslak got his brother into an ill-conceived escapade or two—what older brother doesn’t?—but mostly he was an enormous inspiration to Fred and an early business partner. Even before the war, the two brothers manufactured planks of birch and other woods to sell to furniture factories, and eventually they also became agents to buy wood for the factories.

During the war there was a gasoline shortage, which brought about the advent of hybrid cars. Yes, that’s right, hybrid cars—though not like today’s. These cars started on gasoline, but burned wood for fuel. A cylinder was mounted on the back of a vehicle. Wood briquettes were put into the cylinder and subjected to very low-temperature combustion, which released a gas that the vehicle used for fuel. Wood “drove the cars, the buses, the trucks, everything.” And the Kavli brothers supplied the briquettes! Aslak would have made “a fabulous engineer,” Kavli explains.

Boating In EresfjordBoating in Eresfjord. Aslak Kavli is rowing. In the bow, Fred Kavli sits to the left of a friend. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

I first went to Firda Landsgymnas [a college preparatory school] after the war—I had to wait until after the war—and that was good in many ways, because there were people from all over the country and it had an excellent program, among the best. And, of course, there was a lot of competition, so there were a lot of good students there. That was a really good education, I really enjoyed that. Most people came from other places. . . . That was in Sandane [a city in Western Norway]. And I think that was an advantage, living in the city and going to school. You met other people away from your family, you created bonds and discussion groups and everything else.

He counts the years he spent away at school as among the most formative of his youth—and another essential part of that Norwegian foundation on which his success is built.And then Kavli adds with a wry grin, “But you know, after the war, that patent wasn’t worth much.”

I had so many extra activities there. . . . I was class president the last three years, I was president of the student body . . . so it gave me, in a sense, the confidence that, together with entrepreneurship, helped me go out and compete.

His interest was not so much in science as it was in engineering. He was a fabulous mechanical engineer. He didn’t have the opportunity to go to a Norwegian technical university, but he did go to other technical schools . . . . He founded a company making agricultural machinery, which he started later, and he got a lot of patents. He even got a patent for the machine that made those briquettes of wood . . .

Fred's bother AslackAslak Kavli. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

When he speaks of his brother, it is always with the utmost admiration, even reverence: Kavli credits Aslak for much of the courage and vision he needed for his own later success—Aslak was a major part of that foundation Norway gave him.

I was so young, and the reason I was able to do it at that age was because I worked with my brother, who was seven years older than me, and he was very generous with me and gave me half the business. And then he went away for a period of time to Oslo and I ran the business, but by that time everybody knew me, so even though I was very young, they didn’t care. So, you know, that prepared me [for the future]. I had confidence I could do it. I’d been in business already.

Some of the money Kavli earned with his brother helped to pay for his study of physics at the renowned Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim2—although like college students today, he did accumulate some student debt. And also like many of today’s students, he found the experience of being away from home and on his own exhilarating.

Fred at NTNUFred Kavli (second row from the bottom, left) in deep thought during class at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

Although his studies proved rigorous at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim, his time there left him energized, but there were few if any outlets for that energy in Norway. Just three days after graduation, fueled by his father’s tales of San Francisco and his own youthful ambition, he sailed for America on the S.S. Stavangerfjord.3 But since he was a young man without a job or a sponsor, he initially failed to get a visa for the United States and instead immigrated to Montreal, Canada. A year later his U.S. visa application was granted and in 1956 he headed to Los Angeles.

His reasons? Well, some of them may sound a little mundane, merely a young man’s fancy, but they are really the same as those of many immigrants before or since: He wanted a better life, a good job, and a chance to grow. And he liked the weather in California. “I wanted sun and summer,” he says with self-effacing laughter, and then continues, “The standard of living was much higher here. For example, [in Norway] to get a car—which every young boy likes to do, of course—would be very difficult, it would take a long time. And you know, after I came here in 1956, I got a job in a small company, I think it took me about three months and I bought a two-or-three-year-old Chevy. . . .” And then adds something that would be the envy of most graduates these days, “I paid back my student debt in a matter of months.”

But the opportunities weren’t all so prosaic. In fact, many were thrilling—and daunting. As engineers and physicists, Kavli and a few others like him could not have picked a more opportune time to come to California.

Fred NapingHumorous photo of Fred Kavli, student. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

There were tremendous opportunities here. Of course, when I came, we were in the space race, and we got into the Sputnik area, and there were a number of European engineers—especially German engineers, they were very popular, Werner von Braun, for example—and so the government was anxious to get this expertise, and we had very good basic education, and I got security clearance in a relatively short time because they went over to Europe to investigate my background promptly.

He chuckles. “It was a lot easier then than it is now,” he says. The challenges were huge, but for a bright, young man with a quick, flexible mind, the possibilities must have seemed endless.

I started in a very small company, seven employees. It was really run by a chemical engineer and I was the only physicist actually. One of my first tasks was to design the flight control sensors for the Atlas Missile. Believe that? Just out of school, really, and I become the chief engineer! But the reason was nobody really knew anything about it, you see. . . . These were new products. They had to operate, for example, immersed in liquid oxygen and we had to test them in liquid nitrogen. We didn’t know what the material changes would be, or the change in the permeability of the steel, and various things. But also I was able to talk to some of the national laboratories and some of the universities to get additional information. There were no textbooks on these things. So I used to say that in America you don’t really need to know anything, you just need to know how to ask the right questions.

It didn’t take very long for Kavli to ask himself a question upon which the rest of his future would turn—Why wasn’t he working for himself? He remained with his first employer for only two years, Kavli explains, and then—incredible as it may sound to us today—he “put an ad in the papers saying something like ‘Engineer seeking financial backing to start his own business.’” And it actually worked!

Of course, there was no venture capital industry at that time, but I got some responses. I got a sponsor who had a company already, in hydraulics and, of course, one of the things that was important at that point was that the tax rate was something like 70% . . . so if you sponsored something like this, you could write it off as an expense to some degree, and that was very helpful.

KavliCo aerial pictureAerial view of Kavlico headquarters in Moorpark, California.Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

Such was the unlikely birth of Kavlico, a company that Kavli headed for about the next 40 years—and again, the projects were cutting-edge right from the get-go. As an article in Scientific American relates,

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. . . . 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 a durable precision sensor 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.4

Kavlico, with headquarters in Moorpark, California, became one of the world’s largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive, and industrial applications. About the same time the company was founded, Kavli began investing in California real estate. Because he developed, built, and self-financed essentially all of his holdings, the recent recession had minimal impact on them, and they continue to be a source of much of his wealth. An article in Time summed up this period in Kavli’s career and describes how he has subsequently returned to his old dreams and interests and created a new career as philanthropist.

In 1958 he started his own aerospace firm--Kavlico’s first contract was with General Electric, designing feedback sensors for an atomic airplane--and soon began investing, with extraordinary success, in California real estate. When he sold the company in 2000--just before the internet stock bubble burst--the undisclosed selling price was big enough to allow Kavli to return to the great unanswered questions of basic science that had long fascinated him. He wanted to endow major prizes for research in his astro-nano-neuro triad, the fields he thinks will produce the most exciting discoveries in the coming centuries. In particular, he wanted to fund early-stage research, the bold ideas that may be many years away from producing tangible results. Quantum physics, for example, seemed totally impractical until engineers used its findings to design the tiny chips that power today’s beloved consumer gadgets. Amid funding cuts for research, Kavli wanted to help produce knowledge about the world that could ultimately make it a better place.5

Kavlico AdKavlico transducer ad. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

To say that Kavli’s philanthropy is a “new career” is hardly an overstatement. Every weekday, after rising early to exercise, the 84-year-old Kavli drives about 45 miles from his ocean-side home in Santa Barbara, California, to his office in Oxnard, where he manages the real estate holdings that help underwrite his support of scientific advancement and innovation and conducts business related to the primary conduits of that support—the Kavli Foundation and the Kavli Prize. He jokes, but seriously, about still needing to make money so he can continue giving it away.

The foundation came first. Kavli established the Kavli Foundation in 2000, which is “. . .dedicated to the goals of advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased public understanding and support for scientists and their work. . . . The Foundation’s mission is implemented through an international program of research institutes, professorships, and symposia in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics as well as prizes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience."6

If there is one word that describes what the Kavli Foundation supports, it might be vision. “Well, of course, basic science is very theoretical and the benefits are hard to measure. The benefits may be far into the future. So we are supporting basic science and you could say that is somewhat vision-oriented,” Kavli says.

You see, I look at human beings as we have developed through the ages, and you know, practically everything we touch has been developed through basic science. Its foundation is in basic science. Yet it is sometimes hard to get support for basic science because people want to see things that have results in a shorter period of time. One of the things we are doing is supporting science in the embryonic stage. When it’s an idea, it’s too early to write a big proposal for the government. . . . You have an idea, you don’t know if it works or makes any sense, but you need some money to explore it.

A Kavli Institute is now the golden fleece coveted by universities worldwide. Currently there are six Kavli Institutes in astrophysics, at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, MIT, the University of Cambridge, Peking University, Beijing, China, and the newest institute to be endowed at the University of Tokyo.

We just endowed a new institute in Tokyo and I am going over there in a couple of weeks. It’s the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, the Kavli IPMU, a big institute, a beautiful building, with about 200 scientists working there, so it’s not a start-up. Most of the Institutes we started, but not all.

There are two Kavli Institutes in theoretical physics, at the University of California-Santa Barbara and at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing. There are four in nanoscience, at Cornell University, the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. Finally, there are four institutes dedicated to neuroscience, at Columbia University, the University of California-San Diego, Yale University, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

In addition to the Kavli Institutes, seven Kavli professorships have been established: two at the University of California-Santa Barbara and one each at the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of California-Irvine, Columbia University, the California Institute of Technology, and Harvard.

Believe it or not, the foundation’s beneficence doesn’t end there. It also sponsors a series of programs, learning opportunities, and incentives in the study of science: the Kavli Futures Symposia in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience; the Kavli Frontiers of Science, sponsored in partnership with the US National Academy of Sciences, which brings together bright young researchers across many fields so they can present their work, exchange ideas, share experiences, and discover new directions for their research and careers; the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, located in the United Kingdom, providing a retreat where scientists from all over the world can meet to discuss and develop their work in an atmosphere that historically has given rise to major scientific breakthroughs; the MIT Kavli Science Journalism Workshops, administered by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recognizing excellence in science journalism for a general audience; and the Royal Society Kavli Medals, awarded biennially by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for any individual who has made a significant impact on science or mathematics education within the United Kingdom.7

Fred at KITPC opening ceremonyFred Kavli at a press conference announcing the Kavli Insititute of Theoretical Physics China at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

A last program on this impressive list underscores one of Kavli’s deepest personal concerns—the environment, climate change, and the development of non-polluting sources of energy—the National Academies Summit on America’s Energy Future, a major and comprehensive study about the role of energy in long-term U.S. economic vitality, national security, and climate change. When complete, the report will provide U.S. policy makers authoritative estimates of the current contributions and future potential of existing and new energy supply and demand technologies, their associated impacts and projects costs.8  As a scientist, Kavli is not going to posit the major cause for climate change at this point—whether it is a natural cycle, or man-made, or a little of both—but for Kavli it is real and urgent and needs to be addressed.

I think that nature is extremely powerful and the sun is such a fantastic energy source, and I think there are cycles in nature and we may be on a natural warming cycle for all I know, I’m not sure. But I think CO2 [carbon dioxide] can be a big factor in it. If you fly over the pole . . . or if you fly over Canada, northern Canada . . . you can see how much of it has changed, how much of the ice and snow has melted. It’s a real concern, and also there is the concern about the increase in water levels if all that ice melts.

He notes that China builds an average of one CO2-emitting coal-powered plant a week, and just because the United States gets more cheap natural gas, which is less polluting than coal, it really doesn’t solve our country’s problem of CO2 in the atmosphere. “So I am discouraged somewhat by our lack of ability to tackle the problem,” he says. “We talk about it, but there isn’t much being accomplished.”

Kavli recognizes there are several facets to the problem. “One is to save power, to be more efficient,” he says, “and another is to produce power that is non-polluting. Sun and wind are good, and we work on that, but they are very expensive.” He notes the steep price tag of research, product development, and the new infrastructure involved. And then there is the question of time—if glaciers in Norway and elsewhere are disappearing, do we really have the luxury of waiting until alternate sources of energy are fully capable of meeting our energy needs? His answer is a fairly emphatic “no.”

A major part of his prescription might be a predictable one for a physicist, but it isn’t particularly popular with some environmentalists—nuclear power. The only way to produce power that is nonpolluting “on a scale that is going to make a difference is really nuclear power,” Kavli asserts.

The nuclear power plants that we already have—and, yes, it cost a lot of money to build them—were amortized a long time ago, and they run for a long time and the fuel costs very little. . . . If you are going to do anything reasonably suited to combat global warming and the problem with additional CO2, then nuclear power needs to be a significant part of it.

Kavli doesn’t pretend that there isn’t a problem with nuclear waste, or that we don’t need to find ways of recycling it. In fact, he says that we already know how to do it to some small extent and that time will only make it more efficient.

It is not an insurmountable problem. Nuclear waste has not been properly addressed, but it’s not really a scientific problem, it’s a political problem. [Nuclear recycling] can be done. Of course, there’s a concern about proliferation, too . . . The population is scared to death of nuclear power, but that’s not our experience: Not many people have died from nuclear power as compared to getting all those other sources of energy out, like coal. And the press is really kind of against it. It’s hard to say, we’ll see. Eventually we’ll probably find we may be able to get nuclear fusion, which will not have any pollution, but that is very difficult and a long time ahead.

Kavli’s advocacy of nuclear power in no way excludes support of research and investment in other solutions to global warming, however. “It’s a serious problem, and we need to attack it and approach it from all directions, and do many different things to make measurable progress,” he says. Indeed, this inclusivity is a mark of how urgently he feels we need to respond to our energy challenges, and he has earned the respect of some of the most noted and creative environmentalists today, even those who may not agree with him on every point. Reinventing Fire, the pathfinding new book by mainstream environmentalist Amory Lovins, sits on his desk with a warm inscription by the author thanking Kavli for everything he has done in support of climate change research.

Kavli Prize MedalMedal for the Kavli Prize on display in Fred Kavli’s home. Photo: Charlie Langton, Vesterheim.

It is visionary thinking that the Kavli Prizes recognize as well. The prizes reward advances in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, the same three fields that the foundation focuses on. Consisting of a scroll, medal, and cash award of one million dollars, a prize in each of these areas is awarded every two years, beginning in 2008. The Kavli Prizes are a partnership between the foundation, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, and are presented at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.9

The prizes are a natural part of “the Kavli family,” the “total package,” Kavli explains, “an important part of it—to award scientists for their work, to give them publicity, if you will, and to create more talk and support of science.” They differ in an important respect to the Nobel Prizes, to which they invite comparison, because the Nobel Prizes cover vast fields whereas the Kavli Prizes recognize achievement in three very specific fields.

Neither Kavli nor the foundation are involved with selection process of prize recipients. “Kavli Institutes have some of the very best scientists, of course, in the world, but we want them to compete on an equal basis,” he says. “So when it comes to selecting prize winners, that has to be completely outside of what we do, so we have prize committees."

Independent of The Kavli Foundation, Kavli Prize recipients are chosen by three prize committees comprised of distinguished international scientists recommended by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society. After making their selection for Award recipients, the recommendations of these prize committees are confirmed by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.10

With the Kavli Prizes, Fred Kavli returned, in a sense, to his home country and to that Norwegian foundation he built his success upon—although he never really totally left it. He has visited Norway frequently over the years, his beloved brother came to America to work for the company for a time, and practically all of his nephews have worked in his company at different periods, he says. Now his brother Aslak and his two sisters have passed away, but he still keeps in touch with family in Norway.

Moen farm in Eresfjord where Fred grew up.The Moe family farm, Moen, today. Fred Kavli grew up here and now is working to convert it to a hotel and gourmet dining establishment. Photo courtesy of Fred Kavli/The Kavli Foundation.

The same holds true for his connection to Moen, the family farm where he grew up. When his nephew, who owned it for many years, decided to sell, Kavli set up a foundation to purchase the farm and now has added a state-of-the-art kitchen and an annex of 12 bedroom/bathroom suites. Eventually the farm will be a quality, picturesque inn, but for now concentrates only on larger groups, supplying them accomodations and serving special gourmet dinners prepared by a chef who was named Norwegian Champion of the Culinary Arts in 2004 and Nordic Champion in 2005.

All of this keeps the indefatigable Fred Kavli pretty busy, but in what spare time he has, he plays a little tennis and collects art. He has been interested in both literature and art since he was a young man, but only began collecting with any seriousness in the 1990s, or perhaps around 2000. “I used to have more vacation when I had my business. I used to travel quite a bit. I bought art from Sotheby’s, Christie’s. I bought art in Oslo and Stockholm and Copenhagen, and, of course, Paris, whenever I traveled. And I only buy art—not because it’s the most famous art—I buy the art that I like to live with, to look at,” he explains.

Fred stading in front of a Tidemann paintingFred Kavli first remembers seeing this painting by Adolf Tidemand illustrating a book when he was a child. Today it hangs in his Santa Barbara home. Photo: Charlie Langton, Vesterheim.

However, much of his collection—mostly from the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries—is indeed famous. His collection boasts works by Norwegian, French, English—and even one or two American—masters. One quaint and beautifully rendered piece by Norwegian Romantic Nationalist painter Adolf Tidemand that now hangs in his home he first saw illustrating a book as a child. In addition to paintings and watercolors, there are photographs by Ansel Adams, sculpture, Oriental ceramics, and European furniture, too. In fact, he personally supervised every architectural and decorative detail of his Santa Barbara home.

Summing up his life with characteristic Norwegian understatement, he says with a smile, “It’s been a good time. No complaints.”

We can choose to stand back and admire such accomplishment as the product of a remarkable immigrant who came into his own during a remarkable era, but that would be to miss the challenge that Fred Kavli’s life offers us all. Every era is remarkable in its own way, and we are all immigrants, each day forsaking the familiar to discover ourselves in a new world.

Fred's HouseVesterheim Trustee Richard Hemp and Fred Kavli in front of Kavli’s ocean-view Santa Barbara home. Photo: Charlie Langton, Vesterheim.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, quotations and information found in this story are taken from an interview with Mr. Kavli conducted by the author and Vesterheim Trustee Richard Hemp on April 17, 2012.
  2. In 1996 the Norwegian Institute of Technology ceased to exist as an organizational superstructure when the university was restructured and rebranded. The former NTH departments are now basic building blocks of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
  3. “Fred Kavli,” Wikipedia, the Free Encylopedia
  4. Sally Lehrman,“He’ll Pay For That,” Scientific American, July, 2005. 31.
  5. Anonymous,“Power of One: The Next Nobel?,” Time, August 2, 2007. 
  8. ibid.
  10. ibid.