Kavli remembered: Physicist employed thousands, gifted millions
Fred Kavli, an entrepreneur, scientist and philanthropist who created thousands of jobs and gave millions for the study of theoretical physics, died at his home in Santa Barbara on Nov. 21. He was 86.
Born in Norway, Kavli made his way to the United States after World War II to pursue physics and expand on his lifelong entrepreneurial streak. In the late 1950s, he founded Kavlico Corp., a Moorpark-based maker of advanced sensors for cars and aircraft. He also invested in real estate for more than 50 years.
But Kavli, who the Business Times estimated was the 10th richest person in the Tri-Counties and worth about $600 million, was best known in his later years as a philanthropist. After selling Kavlico for $345 million in 2000, he started the Kavli Foundation and became one of the most prolific givers in the Tri-Counties and one of the top donors to the sciences in the nation.
He founded 14 Kavli research institutes around the world, including the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara.
“Fred Kavli was a great friend of science,” David Gross, a UCSB physicist who won the Nobel prize in 2004 and has served as executive director of the institute, said in a statement. “It was an extraordinary experience to work with him to help shape his vision. He will be missed.”
With Kavli’s backing, the institute deepened its reach into fields such as applying theoretical physics to biology and other non-traditional areas, making important new findings. “Without Fred’s support, we would never have had the capacity or resources to expand into new areas,” Lars Bildsten, the institute’s current director, said in a statement. “His support has been truly visionary.”
Kavli also gave the Nobel Prizes a run for their money, awarding $1 million total in Kavli Prizes each year for nanotechnology, neuroscience and astrophysics. The researchers he supported have won multiple Nobel Prizes, and his foundation controls approximately $100 million in assets.
“This is a painful loss for the foundation and for all of science,” Rockell Hankin, vice chairman of the Kavli Foundation, said in a statement. “We can only take comfort in his extraordinary legacy, which will continue advancing critically important research that benefits all of humanity, and supports scientific work around the globe.”
Kavli gave to a variety of other organizations throughout the Tri-Counties, funding efforts such as the Fred Kavli Theatre for Performing Arts at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. He also structured a deal to sell one of his investment properties to the Ventura County Community Foundation, which created a center to house a number of Ventura County nonprofits at rents they can afford to sustain.
“He helped us get the building and put us on the pathway to have this project on solid footing. We couldn’t have done it without his partnership,” Hugh Ralston, executive director of the foundation, told the Business Times. “He was an extraordinary philanthropist who had a vision about where and how his resources could expand basic frontiers of knowledge. In many ways, he was a terrific example of how the power of philanthropy can shape the future.”
A naturalized American citizen, Kavli was born in 1927 on a small farm in Norway nestled in the mountains. He studied physics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology, financing his schooling with money made from a small business he and his brother, as teenagers, ran during World War II making wood briquettes that could be used as fuel in modified automobiles.
After graduating, he came to Canada and then California. After two years in the Golden State, he founded Kavlico Corp. in Los Angeles, later relocating to Moorpark. Its sensors found their way into projects such as the SR-71 Blackbird and the Space Shuttle. Kavli remained CEO and sole shareholder of the company until the company was sold in 2000.
About a year ago, Kavli was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer. He died of complications from surgery. He is survived by two children and nine nephews and nieces. In a statement, the Kavli family asked for privacy and encouraged the public to remember Kavli’s spirit of philanthropy.
“We can all reflect upon his example of giving so much of himself to make this world a better place. May his legacy continue to benefit mankind,” the family said in a statement.