New Zealand is a nation of innovators. And not just a notable few throughout history, but everywhere, every day, Kiwis challenge the realms of science and certainty in their backyards and we rarely ever hear about them.
Sir Ray Avery, the philanthropic scientist whose medical inventions have saved millions of lives, is one of our brightest stars.
You would have heard of Sir Ernest Rutherford, the physicist who split the atom; Richard Pearse, pioneer aviator; Kate Shepard, ‘leading light’ of the women’s suffrage movement; and Sir Peter Jackson, radical filmmaker.
But have you heard of Collin Murdoch, the Timaru pharmacist whose world-first plastic disposable hypodermic syringe revolutionised global healthcare?
Or Bill Buckley, whose magnetic technology is responsible for most of the world’s silicon chips and it also used to cure cancer and carbon-date some of the world’s oldest rocks?
What about Sir Ray Avery, the philanthropic scientist whose medical inventions have saved millions of lives?
New Zealand is a nation of innovators and not just a notable few throughout history, but everywhere, every day, Kiwis challenge the realms of science and certainty in their backyards and we rarely ever hear about them.
Sometimes, what they did might come up in conversation with their mate down at the local pub, and you might catch wind of it through the grapevine, one day, maybe, if you’re lucky.
Sir Ray Avery believes we need to change the way we see ourselves. “We are beginning to change, to share what we do with other people, but we need to rev it up,” he says.
The distinct, inborn resourcefulness of Kiwi culture is why Sir Ray Avery decided to settle in New Zealand and what makes our country the perfect breeding ground for greatness.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do anything on the world stage if I hadn’t come to New Zealand.”
From the streets to celebrity
Sir Ray Avery GNZM is internationally respected as a scientist, author, inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and start-up investor.
He is probably most renowned for, as technical director of the Fred Hollows Foundation, designing and commissioning two state of the art intraocular lens manufacturing facilities in Asmara, Eritrea and Kathmandu, Nepal, which allowed for the development of novel low cost lens manufacturing technologies, systems and global distribution networks.
Through the charitable trust Sir Ray founded in 2003, Medicine Mondiale, he has developed his two most eminent inventions: the Acuset IV Flow Controller, a device that facilitates the safe administration of potent IV drugs, and the LifePod infant incubator, a high-tech, low-cost incubator that uses patentable technology to reduce the mortality rates associated with upper respiratory tract infections of premature babies.
It’s predicted that by 2030, the number of people able to see because of the technology Sir Ray has developed will reach 20 million. And at around US$2,000 each, the LifePod incubator has made healthcare increasingly accessible in comparison to its counterparts, typically up to US$40,000. Furthermore, single incubator can save at least 500 children’s lives.
Medicine Mondiale continues to promulgate Sir Ray’s belief that it’s possible to improve healthcare outcomes on a global scale, and he’s been commended accordingly along the way, with honours such as:
The Bayer Research and Development Innovator (2008), the World Class NZ Award for Biotechnology (2009), the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Medal (2010), KiwiBank New Zealander of the Year (2010), Readers Digest New Zealanders Most Trusted Person (2011), the Ernst and Young Social Entrepreneur Award (2011), and he was made a Knight Grand Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for his services to philanthropy (2011), among other accolades.
Growing up in orphanages to becoming one of the most influential social scientists in the world seems somewhat discordant, no? On the contrary. A British street kid from way back, Sir Ray thinks he wouldn’t have been so successful if he hadn’t had such a challenging start to life.
Being an orphan gave him the opportunity to “view the world at large” and presented experiences he has come to be indebted to.
At one point he lived on the streets of London for an entire year, sleeping underneath a railway bridge and taking himself to art galleries and libraries in the evenings to keep warm, where he enjoyed learning from the Britannica encyclopaedias. It was here his fascination for science made itself undeniably and increasingly known.
But Sir Ray had acute glue ear and struggled to hear at school. The teachers thought he was learning impaired and relegated him to the back of the classroom. How wrong they were; and what a blessing that infraction was.
The depths of this classroom gave life to a skill that Sir Ray uses every day and accredits with enabling him to come up with his ideas: the power of observation.
After graduating Ray set up successful analytical testing laboratories before leaving Britain and settling in New Zealand in 1973.
On calling New Zealand home
“I was walking away from a country embedded in tradition. I think even the most ardent royalists would say that Britain isn’t a can-do country by nature,” Sir Rays says.
“Part of that is due to histories dating back to the 13th century, whereas for New Zealanders, every single person that ever came here did so on an adventure, following a dream of some sort, and that’s what makes us different, that’s why we’re the way we are, we’re a young country, we are vibrant and open.”
Sir Ray says New Zealanders have three basic characteristics that make us special: 1) We are not fond of rules, 2) We have no respect for the status quo, and 3) We dare to dream. Rule number three resonates particularly strongly with him.
“We shouldn’t win the America’s Cup, we shouldn’t win the Rugby World Cup, and yet we do, because we believe that we can.
“We do what we need to do to make it happen, like in The Americas Cup, where someone said, ‘Your legs are actually more powerful than your arms, why don’t we put the guys on bikes?’
“New Zealanders influence the world on a huge scale,” Sir Ray says.
On current developments and future predictions
Sir Ray has turned his focus to developing a nutritional product, Amigo Bars, similar to a muesli bar only highly enriched with vitamins and amino acids to grow healthy minds and bodies.
The aim is to distribute Amigo Bars from late this year; first within New Zealand, where one in four of our children goes to school without breakfast, then in the Pacific, and then to the rest of the world, at the price of 40c per bar. It is hoped Amigo Bars will have impacted on at least 500 million children in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.
“Some of these kids have no chance at life from the moment they’re born. We’re giving them a chance at life with the incubators, but then the next things that’s happening is they’re suffering from malnutrition.
“If we can get them well enough to grow up, maybe they’ll grow up to be the next Nelson Mandela and change the world.”
Sir Ray has always believed he can change the world, but never on his own. He relies on a network of people who “donate their time to helping us, about 200 people who work for us for nothing, we just ask them to use their very secular talents to change the world”.
The imminent rebranding of Medicine Mondiale to The Sir Ray Avery Foundation will carry Sir Ray’s philosophy in perpetuity.
Adopting this philosophy on a wider scale however, requires collective progression from current putative understanding.
“I think we need to change our focus in terms of what it is to be a good human being… I’m just as proud of being a good Dad as I am of fixing some of these world problems.
“We tend to think success is around building multi-million dollar companies, having companies that have take-overs, whatever; what we need to do is get up and try to make the world a better place.
“It’s nice to have Kiwi technology providing the world with entertainment, but for me it’s important to make products that make the rest of the world better off through good nutrition and medical intervention.
“Because I have skills in that area, I feel it’s my responsibility to do this.
“I’m trying to make businesses that are good for us and our planet, and as a moral lightening rod for other people to say you can do it – and recycle your profits from the sale of products into expanding the business… with more good products that build and grow healthy people and look after them for their whole lifecycle.”
But rather than being remembered as someone who achieved incredible things, Sir Ray hopes his legacy is one that galvanises the Kiwi spirit. “My philosophy is that we tend to think about customers as somebody we sell things to. My definition of customers is that everybody in your life is a customer.
“The first customer in your life is the person you go to sleep with; you have to make sure you look after them and that their needs are taken care of.
“You get that right and you move on to the next customer: the people you work with or employ. If you can get them to believe in the business, the business will succeed, no matter what, because they want to make a success of it.
“Conversely, if you treat them like a workforce, they’re going to have no loyalty to you, and so your ability to run a business is diminished by the fact that people aren’t happy to work with you.
Sir Ray says the reason we’ve got so much angst in the world is that people are unhappy. What we’ve got to do is come up with a better model of society.
“For me, the most important factor for being successful in business is building great teams of people with great hearts, and by doing that you innately end up with a better society.”
By Lydia Truesdale