US philanthropist Fred Kavli has embarked on a second round of grants of up to $5 million to each of the 15 research institutes that were established in his name. The grants, Kavli told Nature, are conditional on the institutes finding gifts from other donors so that they can establish endowments of $20 million.

Fred Kavli is hoping to support 20 institutes. Credit: S. ANDERSEN/NORDISK FILM

Kavli, who made his $600-million fortune through real estate and selling his company — which had become a leader in supplying aeronautic and automotive sensors — says that the second round could take five years or more. "Right now the market hasn't been very kind to us," he says. "We are hedging a little on this."

Seven years ago, when Kavli established the first of the institutes, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he developed what became a relatively strict formula: on average each university got $7.5 million, to be supplemented and used however — for a building, for operating expenses, or for endowed professorships. Kavli got the name.

John Carlstrom, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago in Illinois, says that his university was not the only one that thought the gift was relatively small to be exchanged for the naming rights to an entire institute. But many assumed, apparently correctly, that more money would be coming later.

The first of the second round of gifts was completed in May to the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics & Cosmology to Stanford University in Menlo Park, California. A deal with the University of California at Santa Barbara is in the works as fundraisers find matching gifts.

Kavli, 81, says that he views the institutes, which specialize in nanoscience, neuroscience, astrophysics and theoretical physics, as his legacy — and as more important than the three $1 million eponymous prizes that were awarded for the first time this year. But he says that he is not done yet; he eventually envisions 20 institutes.