Norway to the world

Photo: Lars Wanberg. Fred Kavli in his backyard above the ocean in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Fred Kavli strives to make the world a better place

Larrie Wanberg

Norwegian American Weekly

The Kavli Prize will be presented in Norway on Sept. 4, with His Majesty King Harald bestowing the medals at the Kavli Prize Symposia that includes a week of Laureate Lectures. Six distinguished scientists are awarded funds for research by the Kavli Foundation. One Norwegian-American man, who credits his childhood imagination and initiative, coupled with his education as an engineer, strives to make the world a better place.

This story is about 84-year-old Fred (Fridtjof) Kavli, the Norwegian-born entrepreneur and philanthropist, who describes how his vision came alive from his farm homeplace in Norway and influenced him in becoming the founder and chairman of the renowned Kavli Foundation in California.

His story in this interview is not about his gold medal prizes given in Norway that recognize leading scientists in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience with a cash award of $1 million for each area. Nor is it about his funding of 16 scientific institutes at prestigious universities around the globe.

Rather, it is about how growing up on a farm in the Western fjord country of Norway influenced him as a person, as an entrepreneur who created valued solutions, and to his belief in the importance of education and research to improve the human experience.

“The path from scientific discovery to successful innovation and commercial products” he is quoted saying, “is known to be neither straightforward nor rapid, requiring patience, persistence and a willingness to accept the risk of failure.” With an iPad infront of him on his desk, he talked about how the opportunities for success today are so much greater than his youthful times because of the tools of communication technology.

His smiley eyes accented his words as he talked. His hands often folded near his chest to gently ponder a reflective thought.

“What stimulated my thinking as a youth on a Norwegian farm,” he said, “was the energy that comes from nature,” describing the mountains that seemed to encircle the home farm with serenity, the adventurous appeal of the fjord waters and the entrepreneurial spirit of his siblings who expressed their creativity in inventions, initiatives and food resources found on the farm, like an ecological village unto itself.

He remembered his insatiable curiosity as a youth, often lying on a grassy meadow, looking upward to the stars in wonderment, or studying the aurora borealis dance across a colorful winter sky, foreshadowing his interest in aerospace and astrophysics.

“My first entrepreneurial experience started when I was just 13 years old when my older brother, Aslak, and I established a saw mill where we cut planks for furniture factories. My brother designed and patented a special machine that produced wood briquettes, which were used during World War II in Norway to drive automobiles since there was a lack of gasoline. During that time every civilian truck, bus or personal automobile had a cylinder mounted on the back which was a couple of feet in diameter and four to six feet long which you filled with pieces of properly dried wood of approximate size of a fist. When the wood was heated up at the bottom of the cylinder in the low temperature combustion it emitted a gas called “syn” gas, which was compressed and used in the engine instead of a mixture of air and gasoline.”

The enterprise financed his later education. “It worked well, filled a dire need at the time, and caused me to believe that a large part of entrepreneurship is in the genes.”

His father at age 15½ left Norway for San Francisco, where he resided for over 13 years. His father’s stories of adventure swayed Fred’s decision to emigrate after finishing his engineering degree at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. “America was the land of opportunity; California had the climate,” he said. He described his mother as “sweet, hard-working and dedicated.” His father managed the land, and together they worked as a partnership. In those days, it was a partnership where women worked longer days than men.”

His home farm in Norway is now becoming a conference center for small groups with creative interests. The conference center is used by all kinds of people, mostly business people. We were going to turn the workshop into a museum but it was flattened during a storm and we are now re-building it in connection with the barn. The retreat setting stimulates inspiration by the natural beauty of his homeplace, combined with the culinary arts from homegrown produce in the hands of master chefs.

“Today,” he said, “you can be on a farm anywhere and still participate in the global economy because of the power and reach of the Web. Opportunities are everywhere. Recognizing nature’s beauty found in a natural environment fosters a difference.”

Commenting on education, he said that a revolution is happening in learning, with specially-designed courses online, focused on problem-solving, interactive exchanges and collaborative work in teams.

Reflecting on his life experience, he emphasized that education and scientific research takes you to a point where opportunity comes into play for those interested in new careers in science. The most important quality, he suggests, is a desire to create long-term solutions to improve the human condition.

“Skills and success tend to cluster together,“ he said, referring to Silicon Valley as an example, “where a concentration of knowledge by entrepreneurs feed on each other, they benefit each other, and supply each other with ideas or innovations.” He suggested that this same synergy on a smaller scale can happen in rural communities that strive toward social and civic entrepreneurship.

“With the power and reach of the Internet, you don’t have to be located at a set place – you can work from a laptop at home or in a network of like-minded contributors. One can create diversity online and develop a concentration of knowledge and skills. With the Internet, one is totally connected with the whole world. Working online, you can get feedback both initially and continuously to resolve problems and polish solutions.”

It is not very often in life that one can talk with a world leader who interfaces with some of the most brilliant people in science, and yet engages personally as if the listener were kin from Norway. It is rare, too, to meet someone with a seasoned philosophy to invest acquired wealth to make the world a better place for the common man.

To learn more about the Kavli Foundation, visit www.kavlifoundation.org.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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