He might be the most active philanthropist you have never heard of: a retired technology entrepreneur putting his stamp on science research centers at the world's top universities and sponsoring what he hopes will be 21st-century versions of the Nobel Prizes.
With his efficient use of a roughly US$600 million fortune -- big but hardly Bill Gates-ishly mind-boggling -- 79-year-old Norwegian-born philanthropist Fred Kavli could end up having an outsized impact on next-generation science.
Many scientists lament that money for basic research is becoming much harder to obtain as governments, corporations and other big funders seek specific breakthroughs that can be applied relatively quickly. Kavli, however, is adamant about giving money for open-ended research whose ultimate fruits may not yet be in sight.
"He's quite visionary," said Eric Kandel, Nobel-winning director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University. "We need more people like him."
Just a few years after seriously beginning his mission to stimulate advances in nanotechnology, neuroscience and astronomy, Kavli has launched 14 research centers in academia's most rarified halls. The sites include Harvard, Yale, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Holland's Delft University of Technology, the University of Cambridge in England and, in China, Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Although Kavli requires universities to match much of the US$7.5 million which he typically puts up for an institute, no school has turned him down.
Kavli expects to eventually create 20 such centers. And beginning in 2008, US$1 million Kavli Prizes in nanotech, neuroscience and astrophysics will be awarded every two years by the Academy of Sciences in Norway, where Kavli was born and first yearned to better grasp man's place in the universe.
"I like to look far into the future," Kavli said in his slightly lilting Norwegian accent. "I think it's important for the benefit of all human beings."
While Kavli's US$7.5 million to inaugurate an institute is generous, by some measures it's small. New academic buildings, for example, often cost tens of millions of dollars. What makes Kavli's model notable is that it resembles how a business builds a brand.
Between the Kavli institutes -- expected to be fed by an annual pool of US$20 million after his death -- the Kavli Prizes and regular gatherings of Kavli-funded researchers, Kavli hopes to create a growing organism of avant-garde research.
"Fred's interest really is more abstract than most, because he wants to fund the very best of science and doesn't care where it is," said David Baltimore, a Nobel-winning biologist who helped launch the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience at the California Institute of Technology when he was the school's president.
The foundation's momentum is widely credited to its president, David Auston, a former president of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Auston's connections and credibility have opened doors for the foundation, which is based in Oxnard, California.
But Kavli is not just the guy who signs the checks. The vision at work here germinated in him long ago, when Kavli was a young dreamer in Norway.
At age 13, when World War II led to fuel shortages in Norway, Kavli and his brother started a business making wood briquettes that could be burned to power cars. They also sold planks to furniture factories. He studied physics in college, then left Norway in 1955 for the US.