With More Cash and a New Home, a Foundation Plots the Future of its Science Funding

Photo: OS/shutterstock

Photo: OS/shutterstock

In the later years of Fred Kavli’s life, the Norwegian-born entrepreneur built a small foundation with a big reputation for funding basic science. When Kavli passed away in 2013, it was clear that legacy would grow with additional wealth from his estate, but it wasn’t clear how much was on the way. 

Turns out, it was a lot. With funds fully transferred as of late 2017, Kavli left more than 95 percent of his estate to the foundation. That about tripled its assets to more than $600 million, and more than doubled its annual giving to $35 million. 

While sticking mostly to its core practices of endowing research institutes and awarding high-dollar prizes, the Kavli Foundation’s leadership has been charting out the future for this evolving institution. It’s relocated to its own building in a techy new Los Angeles neighborhood, added staff, and is deciding how to expand the mission Fred Kavli set them on. 

Related: Why Fred Kavli's Legacy Is So Important

For one, the foundation’s main avenue for funding, the university-based Kavli Institutes, are getting bigger. The Kavli Prizes—an international suite of million-dollar awards coming up on 10 years running—will stay the same but expand on surrounding programming. Kavli’s also building on its support for science communications work, and for convening researchers to explore new ideas (the latter being partially responsible for the creation of the BRAIN Initiative). 

According to President and CEO Robert Conn, an ongoing goal is to continue providing what he calls “free energy” to researchers, with funding that allows flexibility to explore ideas, and then “letting the scientists determine what the best use of the resources are.”

A Donor's Legacy 

The name Kavli is now so associated with science philanthropy that it’s easy to forget that Fred Kavli only created his foundation in 2000, while in his 70s. Prior to that, his reputation was more likely that of someone who made a bunch of money manufacturing sophisticated sensors for various uses. Or maybe as a Southern California real estate mogul. 

Either way, he developed quite a nest egg, having sold his company for $340 million the same year he started the foundation. Kavli also held a degree in applied physics from the Norwegian Institute of Technology, and had a fascination with science that eventually manifested in his philanthropy.

Hoping to provide flexible dollars—to contrast often-rigid government grants or profit-driven corporate R&D—the foundation found a unique way to support basic science with unrestricted funds. It would establish several endowed university institutes, matching donated funds from other sources, and allow scientists in a handful of promising fields to use annual investment gains however they pleased. 

“That’s an extraordinary way to fund what I call front-end discovery,” says Conn, who had a successful career as a physicist and university administrator before getting into philanthropy. “Because if you get somebody with a crazy idea and they’re not ready to go to the government for funding, what do you do? … Here’s a source of money.”

That became the foundation’s calling card—Kavli Institutes around the world that study astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics. That, and the Kavli Prizes, which were designed to rival the Nobel Prizes in prestige and notoriety, while drumming up public engagement with science. 

The foundation plugged along thus, while also backing professorships, gatherings of scientists, and science communications, until Kavli passed away from cancer at age 86. 

A Bigger Boat

When a foundation has a living donor, that person or family typically has quite a bit of involvement and latitude when it comes to deploying assets. That was the case with Kavli, so after his passing, the team had to make the transition to a different kind of foundation, Conn says. 

At the very least, they were going to come into a lot of money, so in the few years it took to transfer the estate, the team was preparing to carry out the mission—to advance science and promote public understanding of science—in perpetuity, and at a larger scale. As it morphed into a larger, independent funder, it made some institutional changes. For one, it had always been sort of hitched to Fred Kavli and his real estate business, running pretty lean and sharing a location and some staff. That also meant that it was based in Oxnard, near Fred Kavli’s Santa Barbara home. 

Figuring it would be better located in a large metro area, the foundation made plans to move to Los Angeles, choosing the up-and-coming Playa Vista neighborhood, which is just north of the airport and the heart of the city’s tech scene. They came close to leasing office space, but ultimately purchased a 12,000-square-foot building in 2016 for $12.3 million, the priciest deal per square foot that the neighborhood had seen at the time. This year, Kavli is building a 4,000-square-foot conference center that will be attached to the main building. 

The foundation is also building out its staff. The leadership team had previously been just two people—Conn and molecular geneticist Miyoung Chun. Chun was instrumental as executive vice president of science programs, but recently stepped down from that position after 10 years with the foundation (they’re on the hunt for a replacement). Kavli now has a senior management team of five, and overall have grown from a staff of around eight to 20. 

The More Things Change

For all the changes, Kavli is keeping the mission and main strategies roughly the same, at this point—prizes, institutes, convenings, and science communication—but with more cash on hand. In fact, the foundation stays pretty consistent by design, intentionally structured so it would be challenging to do something like add a new discipline to its four core areas, for example. Such a change would require unanimous board approval, plus sign-off from the sitting presidents of Caltech and Stanford, as “another level of accountability,” Conn says.

That makes Kavli’s expansion a unique task, as its model doesn't involve a lot of grants. In fact, a critique you could make about the foundation is that there aren’t many open avenues for researchers to access the foundation’s support. Kavli has its preferred disciplines and methods for moving money, and mostly sticks to them.

One clear path for growth was through the Kavli Institutes. In 2013, a 17th institute was endowed at UC Berkeley, and in 2015, three more were added to bring the grand total to 20. While they don’t have current plans to add more, the foundation’s now in the process of pumping up all of the institutes’ endowments in phases. Some endowments are already at more than $35 million, and many will reach around $30 million, with Kavli funding more than half in each case. 

Another area of growth, telegraphed by the building of that big conference center, is the foundation’s work of bringing together researchers through a variety of forums. This is an area where Kavli is perhaps not as well known as the prizes and institutes, but one that has made them quite influential in the scientific community. One of the foundation’s claims to fame, for example, is that with Miyoung Chun’s coordination, Kavli meetings helped plant the seed for the massive, collaborative BRAIN Initiative that launched during the Obama administration.

“We learned how to do these meetings—listening to scientists, working with the scientists to pick the topics that might be investigated—and the upshot of that has been, we’ve become a convener of where science is going,” Conn says. “We’re not the only convener, obviously, but it’s something we have developed, are very good at. So we built on that asset.”

A big focus is the intersections of exciting fields, and where the next frontiers might be. On that note, they’ve begun to sponsor a program called “Dream Teams,” which allows researchers from different fields to work together for a stretch of time on a shared idea. 

Part of an Ecosystem

A final area where Kavli is expanding its work is in science communication and public engagement. First, public understanding of science has always been an underlying goal of the Kavli Prizes, and they’ve been building up communications work related to the prizes. They've become well known in the scientific community, but the team aims to increase their connection with the public. 

According to Eric Marshall, who came on board a year and a half ago as vice president of prizes and public programs, they’re working to expand the ways they engage the public around the prizes, including with moderated lectures and Q&As with laureates, and local programming to honor prize winners in their home communities. 

Helping people communicate about science is another core goal, and one the foundation has been ramping up by holding a series of workshops intended to break down silos, exchange ideas, and build a community for the long term. 

Part of the reason for backing communication is that, like a lot of private science funders out there, Kavli is interested in keeping the foundations of scientific funding, both private and public, in good shape.

“This ecosystem—philanthropy and the federal government supporting basic science—is unique in the United States, and it is one of the reasons that I think our economy has been as dynamic as it has been,” Conn says. 

Kavli’s a founding member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, where Conn’s currently the board chair. In that way, the foundation’s working to draw more private funders to support basic science, but that can only be one part of what keeps that ecosystem going strong. Philanthropy should be synergistic with the government, not substitutional, Conn says.

“I see Kavli’s role in it as finding these areas where great science can be done, where the institutions are committed to hiring great scientists and students and so on, and then enabling them to follow their best and brightest ideas,” he says.

“We’re a part of an overall ecosystem, but I think we provide resources with as much freedom as anybody, and you need that. So that’s our place in the world.”