Why Fred Kavli's Legacy Is So Important

In the weeks leading up to philanthropist Fred Kavli’s passing, his foundation’s president Robert Conn said the 86-year-old Norwegian billionaire never wavered in his vision of supporting science research.

“In phone conversations over the last 6 weeks, he told me several times—let’s keep going,” Conn says. “He had absolute conviction in his vision and his belief. It’s motivating.” 

And while Kavli passed away in late November, his philanthropy will most certainly keep going. Thanks to his unique approach, both the level of focus, but especially his trust in the value of long-term, ambitious research, Fred Kavli’s legacy will be one of perpetual, unrestricted financial support for key scientific fields. 

For starters, Fred Kavli leaves behind a foundation with a healthy trust of $152 million at the end of 2011, and that should grow, as Conn said the donor left a generous-but-undisclosed gift to the foundation in his will. 

And the Kavli Prizes alone would set the foundation apart, and probably how many will continue to know the name. 

But the real genius is in the Kavli Institutes, a testament to the founder’s commitment to long-term, no-strings-attached research. The institutes— there are 17 of them now peppering the globe— are each endowed with $7.5 million at an established research center with talented staff. The university must match the funds, but the resulting return on investment means about $400,000 annually. The foundation has announced that it will increase the contribution to each Institute up to $10 million, which is expected to provide about a million a year in unrestricted funds when matched.

That’s long-term, unrestricted funding— the holy grail of science research grants. Most research funding is framed firmly in the context of previous studies and short-term outcomes. Study by study. Grant by grant. The Kavli Institutes can use funding to seed any project the researchers deem important, with few reporting requirements.

The idea is that the endowments leverage existing funds, facilities and researchers, giving them extra juice to explore experimental, edgy ideas that might not yield any applications or success in the short term.

As Kavli himself once put it

"As we gain more knowledge about materials and processes in the universe, that could open up benefits that we can't even imagine," he says. "But you have to be willing to fund science without knowledge of the benefits."

It’s not a perfect model, sure. For one thing, it’s highly focused on the fields Kavli himself found promising, and on the Institutes or the few younger researchers awarded Prizes. But it’s boosted a lot of groundbreaking work in a short amount of time.

In fact, the name has become so prominent in science philanthropy, it’s hard to believe the foundation only started in 2000, after Fred Kavli sold his electronic sensor company Kavlico. 

But really, supporting breakthroughs in science has been the work of a lifetime, his dream since he first saw the Northern Lights from his family farm in Norway as a child. Even after his death, it’s still going strong.

See the Kavli Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Read Kavli Vice President Miyong Chun's IP profile