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Interview with entrepreneurial and r&d legend Fred Kavli

Fred Kavli is a naturalized Norwegian-American physicist, business leader, inventor and philanthropist. Born in a small village in Møre and Romsdal County, Mr. Kavli now lives in the city of Santa Barbara. In 2000 he established The Kavli Foundation to...

Question: Mr. Kavli, you have a long successful background that finds the right balance in combining R&D with the entrepreneurial spirit. Can you say a bit about the processes involved finding this correct balance? In achieving your many successes have you often identified a commercial need first, and then sought to satisfy existing requirements – or the opposite – or perhaps a combination of the two variances depending on the situation?

Basic science is driven by curiosity and the benefits are hard to assess in advance. Entrepreneurship and industrial R&D are normally driven by satisfying a need – finding customers that want the product and are willing to pay for it. If it is a brand-new product, the need and desire to purchase may not be clearly known in the beginning, and if the market is not known, the risk is unusually high. At Kavlico, my company’s R&D was always aimed at a known market.

Our research was generally driven by the need to be competitive, improve performance and cut costs, but also by the desire to diversify and increase growth. During the first two decades, Kavlico was mainly manufacturing products for aerospace. I had a strong desire to diversify and in the late 1970’s invented, patented and developed a pressure sensor that could be manufactured at a low cost, and had very high durability and reliability for automotive applications. Subsequent new requirements and the pressure to reduce costs led our research and development into new designs and technologies; still, our R&D was always directed to an existing or emerging market, and enabled us to grow and diversify. In the beginning, we had only one leg to stand on – aerospace – but when I sold the company in 2000, we had three legs: aerospace, automotive and industrial, thanks to a focused R&D programme.

The Kavli Foundation supports basic research, which – as noted – is primarily driven by human curiosity, with benefits that may be hard to predict; but it is basic research that has given us the knowledge required to conduct industrial R&D.

Fred Kavli constantly seeks the right balance in combining R&D with the entrepreneurial spirit. © Dan Dry/Scanpix

Question: The rate of technology is accelerating, certainly aided by organizations created and supported by the Kavli Foundation that include the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science; the Kavli Institute for Bionano Science and Technology at Harvard University and the Kavli Nanoscience Institute at the California Institute of Technology. Can you say a bit in general how activities at these and other Kavli institutes and foundations are linked in with business and industry in facilitating a strong chain of activities from primary research to a commercially viable product or service?

Basic science research is the foundation for applied research development. Among the Kavli Institutes, we contribute to commercially viable products and services in a number of ways.

In nanoscience, for instance, our institutes at the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Delft University of Technology and Harvard University share two broad-based goals: one is the creation of state-of-the-art capabilities in nanofabrication, as well as new methods and instruments in nanoscale; the other is the application of such knowledge to both academia and industry. There is a lot of talk about nanotechnology being the next generation of commercial success. We think the Kavli Institutes in nanoscience research with their approaches in understanding fundamental nanoscale matters and generating its tools will have a direct impact in commercial venues.

While it is more obvious to think that nanotechnology will have a closer link to the commercial world, the research in other Kavli Institutes will also have a strong impact on industry. For example, researchers at Yale’s Kavli Institute for Neuroscience recently reported a discovery regarding how a certain protein triggers a process that blocks brain function in Alzheimer’s patients. Studies like this are the foundation for exploring new ways to treat and possibly cure diseases. What is more interesting is that the fields of astrophysics and theoretical physics can also contribute to the technology advancement of industry. For example, the quantum theory describes how matter is constituted, and this knowledge opened up the invention of the transistor, the laser, computers and many other technological developments that led to a profound commercial depth.

The Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University, California. © Kavli Insitute

Question: The Kavli Prize is a partnership of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The prizes awarded are some of the most attractive in the world, due both to the honor as well as the USD $1,000,000 US awarded each prize category within Astrophysics, Nanoscience, and Neuroscience. Incentives and financing are important – critical – in order to have a continuous R&D effort. Do you have any comments concerning the investments in time, resources and money within R&D – are we in fact investing enough in our common future through R&D and education?

Research and development is a critical investment to any science- or technology-based enterprise. At The Kavli Foundation, one could say research is the heart of each institute’s mission and the overall common goal is the development of knowledge. The fields the Foundation supports we believe are the most exciting in the 21st Century. Is more investment needed? Undoubtedly. Still, there is already real movement in this direction. Just recently in the United States, President Barak Obama has called for making major investments in research and innovation, as well as into science education – another area supported by the Foundation and our institutes. For example, through programmes such as the Kavli Science Journalism workshops at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we aim to strengthen the community of science journalists who are essential for communicating the impact of science to the public. Likewise, we have many Institutes that have themselves invested in outreach programs to local communities. As for the prizes, we see this as a way not only to honour truly pioneering scientists but to engage and educate the public on the importance and need for this kind of research.

Fred Kavli addressing the audience at the Kavli Prize Ceremony.
© Dan Dry/Scanpix

Question: Mr. Kavli, a career within R&D requires special aptitudes as well as certainly a healthy combination of perseverance, dedication and patience. What would be your advice to those considering studies or embarking upon such a career? Are there any particular keys to success?

Along with the necessary training, my advice would be to gain real and practical experience simply in understanding business.

I benefitted greatly when, at the age of 13, I started a business with my older brother making and selling planks for furniture manufacturers, and wooden briquettes for the gas generators that were used to run automobiles during the Second World War. This early experience, along with my education at Trondheim and employment as an engineer, laid the groundwork for starting a business in United States. It was also important being in a time and place where an entrepreneurial interest was supported and encouraged. Kavlico itself began with just a small newspaper ad looking for an investor, as well as asking the right questions of institutions such as national laboratories, universities and businesses.