"It's important to realize this guy's kept a very low profile his whole life, until he came out with all this," said Charles Vest, former MIT president and a member of the foundation's board. "It's not the kind of ego you see somewhat frequently in some parts of the entrepreneurial community."
The foundation is getting most of Kavli's money -- the divorced Kavli does not believe in leaving significant sums to his two children -- and his businessman's emphasis on streamlining. Its operations essentially consist of just Kavli, Auston, a communications director and a fund manager.
"One of the problems with philanthropy is to make it effective, and to use money so that it's not wasted away," Kavli said.
That principle is partly why the foundation expects universities to put up resources of their own to snare a Kavli Institute. Kavli and Auston believe the rule ensures that a university is committed to supporting its researchers in the long term.
Kavli has few concrete expectations for scientists who get his money, other than that they attend interdisciplinary gatherings every so often to share ideas.
"We don't try to tell the institutes what to do," he said. "We try to just select the very best science teams and institutions and support them in what they want to do, and we expect them to choose the very best course of action."
Kavli is confident this simple recipe will grease the wheels for breakthroughs that deepen our knowledge of the universe or help solve our most intractable problems.
"I am," he said, "a fully fledged optimist."
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The 14 research institutes established by the Kavli Foundation:
* Theoretical Physics, UC Santa Barbara
* Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, Stanford University
* Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago
* Astrophysics and Space Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
* Nanoscience, California Institute of Technology
* Nanoscience, Cornell University
* Nanoscience, Delft University of Technology in Holland
* Neuroscience, Yale University
* Brain Science, Columbia University
* Brain and Mind, UC San Diego
* Theoretical Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences
* Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University
* Biological Nanoscience and Technology, Harvard University
* Astronomy, University of Cambridge
Source: Associated Press