About Fred Kavli

Fred Kavli: Biograph

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

In September 2007, prior to a special symposium in his honor, Fred Kavli discussed The Kavli Foundation, the Kavli Institutes, the Kavli Prizes and his lifelong interest in science.

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. 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."1  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.”2

Building his business acumen, 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 relocated to Moorpark, California. As Kavli 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."3 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 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,”4 he would later say.

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. Today, there are seventeen such institutes and there will be more in the years to come. The Foundation has endowed research institutes in neuroscience at Columbia University, Yale University, the University of California, San Diego and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology; 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, 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.

Discussing his interest in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, 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.”5 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.”6

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.”7

Establishing The Kavli Prizes

Fred Kavli at the inaugural Kavli PrizeFred Kavli addresses the audience at the Inaugural Kavli Prize Ceremony. (Scanpix)

Starting in 2008, the Foundation launched a series of science prizes to recognize scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. Consisting of a scroll, a gold medal and a cash award of one million dollars, a Kavli Prize in each of these areas is awarded every two years. The Kavli Prizes are presented by the King of Norway in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway and are a partnership between The Kavli Foundation, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

In addition to establishing institutes and prizes, the Foundation has 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.

Honors and Recognition

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

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.

In addition to supporting scientific research and education, Kavli's philanthropic activities included the Fred Kavli Theatre for Performing Arts at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, as well as other projects.

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 - Graduates with a degree in theoretical physics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim
1956 - Arrives in the United States
1958 - Founds the Kavlico Corporation in Los Angeles – later relocated to Moorpark, California
2000 - Establishes The Kavli Foundation and The Kavli Operating Institute (now merged with The Kavli Foundation)
2002 - Establishes 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 - Receives the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for Outstanding Service
2008 - Receives Tekna Gold Medal
2008 - Receives an honorary doctorate, Doctor Honoris Causa, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
2008 - First Kavli Prizes awarded
2009 - Receives an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Northwestern University
2011 - Receives the Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute
2013 - Fred Kavli passes away at the age of 86


1iPrize and Tekna prepared remarks, 2009
2Prepared remarks for York Science Festival, September 10, 2007
3Press release - 05/11/2000 - Kavli's Gift of $1 Million Endows Two Engineering Chairs
4Cordis News, May 24, 2005
5Press release UCSD Receives $7.5 Million to Create Institute for ‘Brain and Mind’ Research, March 10, 2004 6Prepared remarks at PCAST Meeting, January 8, 2008
7March 17, 2006, Prepared remarks, dedication of the Fred Kavli Building for The Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics & Cosmology, SLAC/Stanford University

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