Sir Ray - the good scientist

By Dionne Christian

Sir Ray Avery's Mondiale Life Pod Incubator for vulnerable premature babies. Picture / Jason Oxenham
Sir Ray Avery's Mondiale Life Pod Incubator for vulnerable premature babies. Picture / Jason Oxenham

With vision and hearing problems as well as dyslexia, Ray Avery sat at the back of the class, but the English-born pharmaceutical scientist, inventor and social entrepreneur says it doesn't have to be the worst seat in school.

From there you can observe and observation is at the heart of all life-changing innovations and inventions, says Sir Ray who established independent development agency and charity Medicine Mondiale in 2003. Medicine Mondiale aims to make quality healthcare accessible to everyone and its work has seen its founder named the 2010 New Zealander of the Year and, in 2011, knighted for services to philanthropy.

"Every innovation starts with someone creative looking at a situation and coming up with a way to do things better," Sir Ray says. "Most of the big innovations that happen and revolutionise lives are done by ordinary people who have the ability to see things that those around them do not and they then act on what they've observed."

He provides a raft of examples from George de Mestral, who invented Velcro in the 1940s after wondering how burdock seeds stuck to his clothes and his dog's fur, to Clarence Birdseye who transformed the frozen food industry after his travels in the Arctic where he saw Inuit using ice, wind and temperature to freeze just-caught fish.

Sir Ray could feature on any list of people who use their powers of observation to create innovative products and technologies that solve everyday problems and make life better for us all.

In recent years, Medicine Mondiale has created a number of affordable solutions to combat global poverty and improve the health of the world's most vulnerable citizens. These include the Acuset IV Flow Controller, which prevents the under and over administration of IV drugs to patients; the Mondiale Life Pod Incubator designed for premature babies in the developing world and Proteinforte, a high-protein food which children, who might die of malnutrition or diarrhoea, can digest.

All have come about after Sir Ray saw healthcare problems which needed solutions and linked these to other things he's observed along the way. For example, Proteinforte owes its existence to him watching kiwi fruit, which contains a powerful enzyme, being used to tenderise meat. Medicine Mondiale formulated a way to use these enzymes to produce a nutritionally-balanced freeze-dried powder which can be readily absorbed by sick children.

Everything Sir Ray and Medicine Mondiale does is underpinned by a philosophy and leadership style which puts people at its heart. He is a firm believer in long-term sustainability, which includes being mindful of environmental issues and working with developing countries; of lean design and manufacturing principals; of rigorous planning and testing; of building teams and mentoring staff and, above all, leading from the front.

It's an outlook based on lived experience. As a child, Sir Ray was abandoned by his parents and raised in foster homes and orphanages but he always had a love of reading, art and science. He'd wag school and take himself to London's Tate Gallery and the Natural History Museum and he might walk past places such as Claridge's Hotel.

Looking in, he realised luxury lifestyles need money so he started part-time work as a paperboy and, as a teenager, started a business repairing the bikes of other paperboys. Even when he ran away from an orphanage and set up home under a railway pedestrian bridge, he kept turning up to work (and sometimes school) spurred on by a never-ceasing desire to change his life.

But, as Sir Ray says, most of us need champions and mentors to help us take the next step. His appeared when, aged 14, he contracted blood poisoning, fell asleep on a train and was hospitalised. Finding his rucksack -- packed full of books -- hospital staff contacted the school he attended. It, in turn, sent gardening teacher Jack Wise to see the troubled teen. Sir Ray thinks it was the books that saved him because hospital staff realised he might be interested in education and making something more of his life.

"Jack Wise offered me a choice: go to a borstal-like juvenile detention centre or attend Wye College and complete a course he was teaching in rural horticulture," recalls Sir Ray. "We all have choices in life and I made mine then and there. Wye College was the making of me.

"One of the many things the tutors did was to take us to visit places like Dagenham to see how cars were made; that showed me there was a world outside what I was used to. I think having those kind of experiences is very important for young people."

After completing the course, Sir Ray got work as a pharmaceutical laboratory technician and chose to study chemistry and bio-chemistry part-time. He earned good money, worked his way up to higher positions and started  and sold  his own businesses but frustration with the English class system saw him sell up.

In the early 1970s, he set off to travel the world and arrived in New Zealand in 1973. Sir Ray says he felt instantly at home because we're a country of people who dare to dream.

"There are billions of people around the world benefiting from inventions and products that were developed right here in New Zealand: the whistle that was used to blow full time at the Rugby World Cup was designed here; the disposable hypodermic syringe was invented by Kiwi Colin Murdoch; Buckley Systems, based in Auckland, produces machines which activate about 80 per cent of the chips used in mobile phones and TVs around the world; Weta Workshop has changed the technology used to make movies and we're world experts in milking machines!

"Our success has got a lot to do with the fact that we don't respect the status quo, which allows us to look for new ways to do things, plus everything is within one's reach in New Zealand. If we want to keep being innovative  and that's going to be especially important as technology changes everything we do  we need to teach our children to dare to dream and that they, too, can be innovators and inventors. We tend to think of education as the key to success but you can end up with a lot of very intelligent people doing well in the professions they choose but who have little or no imagination."

A founding member of the Auckland University School of Medicine's Department of Clinical Pharmacology and former technical director of Douglas Pharmaceuticals, Sir Ray went on to work for the Fred Hollows Foundation and led teams that designed laboratories in Eritrea and Nepal to manufacture intraocular lenses. The lenses are implanted into the eyes of those with cataract blindness, restoring their sight.

The factories now provide 13 per cent of the world market for intraocular lenses and have markedly cut the price so they are affordable to the poorest of the poor. Sir Ray estimates that by 2020, 30 million people will have had their sight restored because of the lens-manufacturing technology.

Working in these countries helped Sir Ray, a father of two primary school aged daughters, develop his own blueprint for Medicine Mondiale. He describes it as a virtual company with its offices and a state-of-the-art laboratory at his Mt Eden home. Without a huge infrastructure, it creates national and international networks and brings together experts who collaborate to develop sustainable enterprises, products and technologies. These are tested to ensure they'll survive the conditions encountered in the developing world.

Sir Ray jokes that he produces products and then sees how they might fail. It means failure is an important business tool and is used to ensure anything Medicine Mondiale makes does the job it says it will. Working through these issues means each new product or technology can take the team years to develop but good things take time, says Sir Ray.

"People have asked me why I care so much about those in the developing world but if I don't, who else will? Ninety per cent of the burden of preventable diseases are borne by people in the developing world and I don't believe that an accident of birth should disadvantage anyone."

As he wrote in his 2010 book Ray Avery: Rebel with a Cause, "We can't solve all the world's problems but we know we can save a lot of lives with our products and maybe some of the children whose lives we save will grow up to find more solutions. I know more than most that everyone deserves a chance at life."

- NZ Herald

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