Once a physicist: Fred Kavli

Fred Kavli is a Norwegian-born business leader, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He established and is president of the Kavli Foundation, which supports science through an international programme of research institutes, prizes, professorships and symposia.

Fred Kavli

Why did you originally choose to study physics?
While I was at school in Norway, physics was the subject I found most interesting and was the best at, which led me to want to study it further. I went on to get a degree in physics from the then Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim.

How much did you enjoy the subject?
For me, physics is the most interesting and fascinating subject because it deals with the most fundamental questions and forms a foundation for most science. I enjoyed it because it deals with giving us an understanding of nature, the universe and the world in which we live.

What did you do after graduating?
When I completed my studies in 1955, I decided I wanted to move to California. My father had lived in San Francisco for 13 years before he came back to Norway and settled down to have a family, so I had heard a lot about the place. Also, at the time the best opportunities for someone with an education in physics were certainly in the US, and California had the best climate. They didn't grant me a visa straight away so I spent a year in Canada before moving to Los Angeles.

How did you end up in the sensor industry?
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I got a job with a small company that was attempting to design and manufacture sensors for the Atlas missile, which was the US's first successful intercontinental ballistic missile. I became the chief engineer just one year after I finished college. My background in physics was good for designing and developing sensors. Two years later I started my own business, the Kavlico Corporation, which eventually grew into one of the world's biggest suppliers of sensors to the aeronautic, automotive and industrial industries.

Do you think your physics training was a significant factor in your success?
The education I got at the Norwegian Institute of Technology was very broad and gave me a good base for designing sensors that had to meet extreme environmental and reliability requirements.

How did you come to start the Kavli Foundation?
I had wanted to set up a philanthropic foundation for a long time, and after I sold my company in 2000 I realized that I wanted to use the fruits of a lifetime of hard work in an efficient way for the long-term benefit of humanity by supporting basic science. The foundation has set up 15 research institutes at leading academic and research institutions worldwide in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics, and it has also recently established $1m prizes for seminal advances in the first three of these fields.

Do you still keep up to date with any science?
Yes, when I have a chance. I like to read mostly about the three main areas that we are supporting.

What advice would you give to potential entrepreneurs?
I think what helped me the most in becoming a successful entrepreneur was the business experience that I gained when I was still at school. I started a small business with my older brother when I was 13, making and selling planks for furniture manufacturers, and making wooden briquettes for the gas generators that were used to run automobiles during the Second World War. This experience, together with the extracurricular activities that I participated in, such as being class president and president of the student union, gave me the confidence that I could start and run a successful and profitable business.

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 02, 2015

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Once a physicist

Fred Kavli