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Sir Ray Avery, knight of disruption

The first thing I want to know upon meeting Sir Ray Avery, is how to properly address him.

“My father-in-law was over and insisted on doing some renovations,” he says. “So I was carrying two 25-kilogram bags of sand, one under each arm, and a builder walked past me and said, 'Good on ya, Sir Ray'.”

"Basically, my reason for being is to develop products that are disruptive technology."
Matt Zwartz, Freelance journalist

“He'd obviously been reading the paper. But that's what we do in New Zealand. We don't take Knighthoods too seriously.”

Warmth rolls over the table at me, a quick humour and hugely bright intelligence in the eyes behind the designer glasses, the English accent still there in the voice.

Sir Avery has been busy, he says. As a teenager he used to sleep rough under a London bridge, before using his natural curiosity “and powers of observation” to fashion himself into a scientist who would go on to be awarded New Zealander of the Year in 2010 and a Knighthood in 2011. Now he is addressed as Sir Ray by the local tradies, and Ray by everyone else.

“Basically, my reason for being is to develop products that are disruptive technology, which allow people to have access to quality medical care when they otherwise wouldn't.

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“We've got a very dysfunctional society,” Sir Avery says. “Ninety per cent of the burden of disease is borne by people in developing countries, but 90 per cent of the spending on healthcare is spent on 10 per cent of the population.

“That's us. We've got CAT scanners; they've got nothing. So we come up with clever technologies that make modern medicine accessible to people.”

A DIFFERENT WORLD

He does this, Sir Avery says, by seeing the world differently, and the organisation he uses as his vehicle - Medical Mondiale - was founded in 2003.

“What I like is really clever science, coming up with stuff,” he says. “My world is driven by customer statements of need, and observations. We come up with stuff that fixes things.

“My first [innovation] was when I was working for the Fred Hollows Foundation. I came up with some technology that allowed us to make low cost intraocular lenses. So that's the lens that goes in your eye permanently - it's just a little bit of perspex. It used to cost a heap of money to produce, but we found a way of automating that process and now there are 16 million people who can see. What that told us is you can change the world.”

In an act of philanthropy, he gifted the technology to the Foundation. It would go on to help collapse the global price of lenses from approximately $US60 to $US3 and give the Fred Hollows Foundation a 13 per cent share of the world market.

Avery also invented a safe IV flow controller, and is working on a range of infant nutrition products, which will be manufactured in Nepal. But now he's on to an even bigger project, his irrepressible energy propelling him on.

“When I was sitting waiting for clinicians to come off the ward for lens surgery, the two most common things I would see were a dead baby waiting to be collected by its parents, and a dead incubator pushed into the corridor,” he says.

So the big thing that we're doing at the moment, we've developed a low-cost infant incubator: The LifePod.

“It was designed inside out, because it needs the right airflows. We got the aerodynamics right internally. Then we had to come up with some disruptive ideas about how we could make it for $2,000 versus $40,000, which is what changes everything, because it makes it so much more accessible.”

Sir Avery says many old incubators could be harmful or even potentially fatal for children, because of bacteria that gather inside causing upper respiratory infections.

“The LifePod sterilises its own water and air supplies, and it's guaranteed to work for 10 years,” he says. “Normally an incubator breaks down possibly after a year to 18 months. We came up with novel technologies that enabled us to get a product to market that fits the infant's requirements, and is much safer and more user-friendly. It's a completely different take.”

SCIENCE FICTION

There's no doubt the machine looks incredibly different from other incubators - streamlined, curvaceous and sleek, it looks like something from a science fiction film.

“What we try and do is think from scratch,” Sir Avery says. “If you look at a washing machine, the next iteration is on the previous model. We say 'what does the customer really want?'

“With my two girls, I want a fridge where if I kick the bottom plate on the right the door will open, and if I kick the bottom plate on the left it will shut, because I've got baby bottles and babies in my hands.”

Plans for bringing the incubator to market are well advanced, with the LifePods being manufactured in India currently.

“It's going into Asia Pacific in January, up through all of the islands, basically. We want to monitor these incubators and make sure there's nothing we've missed. So we have data loggers on them. If someone can connect a phone line to them, we can see what's going on.

“We've tried to make them unbreakable. It's taken us seven years to get the product to market, so you've got to be tenacious.”

Matt Zwartz is a freelance journalist.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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