Ray Avery is the keynote speaker at the upcoming PwC Herald Talks breakfast event in November. Tickets for the event are available now on iTicket.

• Subject - Changing Markets
• Keynote - Ray Avery
• Date - November 4
• Venue - Sky City Theatre
• Tickets - $89

Sir Ray Avery is changing the world. It's a big claim, but the scientist is working on some big projects: developing efficient, economic incubators, mostly for Third World countries; treating malnutrition with affordable and tasty protein bars; and fixing IV lines to ensure correct drug dosage.

All those inventions will make a difference to millions. To Avery, they just make sense.


"Ninety per cent of the world's health spending is spent on us," he says. "People can go off and get their lips done and their boobs done, but in developing countries even basic clinical care is not accessible to people and I think that's wrong.

"I think somehow our society has got completely distorted, where we think it's perfectly acceptable for that to happen, so in the absence of anyone else coming to the party to try and fix it, that's what I'm trying to do."

Avery is quick to laugh and possesses an apparently endless ability to turn negatives into positives. Having untreated glue ear as a child, and being labelled dumb and relegated to the back of the class, taught him the power of observation. Having no parents gave him the freedom to think beyond ordinary limitations. A motorcycle accident changed his view of life and led him to try changing the world through clever technology.

Walking into his spacious home in Mt Eden, decorated with pictures of his wife and two daughters, and nothing out of place, it is hard to imagine the place he came from.

Orphaned as a child in England, Avery was bounced from foster home to foster home, often facing abuse and neglect. It would have been a tough childhood for any kid, he says, but it did teach him to look at the world differently.

You could argue it was an unhappy childhood because I didn't have any parents, but I didn't have any controls either. I didn't have anybody to tell me to go to bed at a certain time and I think, also, I took advantage of every opportunity I had. I think if you have a difficult childhood you do revere the opportunities you get.

While his classmates were in school studying, Avery was living rough under a railway bridge in London, making bicycles and radios from parts found at the tip and selling them to people at his school. His childhood education was largely a do-it-yourself business, with knowledge gained from reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica at the public library.

He describes himself as a natural inventor and engineer. At 5 years old, trying to figure out how a light bulb worked, Avery put his hands into the light socket - and promptly discovered the power of electricity.

"That's kind of the history of how I figured out how the world worked. I'm just thankful I didn't kill myself," he laughs. "But I did experiment with everything around me so I've always been a natural experimenter."


Today, all of Avery's initial experiments and research are conducted in what he calls his magic wardrobe. It sounds very Narnia, right down to the entrance - what looks like a wardrobe door in the back of his daughter's bedroom.

The LifePod has reached the manufacturing stage and Avery hopes to have it in the market early next year. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The LifePod has reached the manufacturing stage and Avery hopes to have it in the market early next year. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Opening the door reveals the mad scientist's laboratory. There is a line of coloured bottles on one wall, a refrigerator whirring in the corner and all around are models of infant incubators, one of Avery's main interests. The inventor is in his element.

Avery is happy to show off his inventions, but is pragmatic about the business. He may be changing the world, but it still costs money. Everything is done with experts in their fields, but with as much free work as can be managed. Avery says the joy of being part of lifechanging work is often enough to persuade people to help, but it is easy to see how anybody could be won over by his charm and openness.

He has calculated the theoretical number of days he has left in his life (4733), and says the aim is to remind himself to try to make the most of every one of them.

"The reality is that all of my education has been hard won in terms of the knowledge that I've acquired over the years and I've got to the last quarter of my life and therefore I want to make sure that I use every single piece of that knowledge to do something quite special."

Doing something special has resulted in Avery being named New Zealander of the Year in 2010, and a knighthood in 2011, for his services to philanthropy. One of his greatest successes has been the development of the LifePod - an almost indestructible, sterile incubator designed for Third World countries and costing about $2000, compared with the $40,000 that normal models cost.

The LifePod has reached the manufacturing stage and Avery hopes to have it in the market early next year.

For the man who started with no family and says he thought he would never have one, it is obvious his greatest pride is in his wife, Anna, and two daughters, Amelia and Anastasia.

"I was blessed because I met Miss Anna in Nepal quite by accident," Avery says. "I had given up on looking for the woman in the white dress and Miss Anna walked in and I suppose the full circle for me is the family bit.

"I always used to say that I couldn't even think about getting married because I couldn't divide my time between my own kids and trying to fix all these kids in developing countries," he says. "But I'm very lucky."

His family has become the centre of his life and has also changed the reason why he does the work he does. Early in life, he says, it was about looking for love. Today, that desire to be loved is still evident, in wanting his daughters to be proud of him and to think he is a good man.


Career highlight?

The thing I'm going to do next.

Best advice you ever received? Don't surround yourself with people of bad character or you will become like them. Surround yourself with good, inspirational people.

Favourite way to relax? Working in my laboratory on a new idea.

Toughest thing you've ever done? Survive, reasonably intact, after 14 years of systematic abuse in English orphanages and halfway houses.

Dream holiday weekend destination? Anywhere where there is water and my two daughters Amelia and Anastasia frolic in the surf while Anna and I laugh out loud.

What are you reading right now? Marti Friedlander's autobiography ... really beautiful gorgeous woman.