Sir Ray Avery

Sir Ray Avery

Sir Ray Avery is a scientist, inventor and a social entrepreneur of the highest order. He developed affordable intraocular lenses that by the year 2020 will have brought sight to 30 million people. He also revolutionised baby incubators to save countless lives in third world countries . He was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit Knight of the Grand Companion, New Zealander of the Year and in 2011 he was voted the Reader’s Digest most trusted kiwi of the year. 

To say that Sir Ray began at a disadvantage to others is to gravely understate his situation in early life. Growing up in London, the man responsible for changing the lives of millions for the better found himself living under railway bridges and escaping orphanages. This life of hardship, Sir Ray believes, gives him a sort of heritage or sense of security, that the worst has already happened and that not only has he survived, he’s thrived. 

Following years of roughing it, a 14-year-old Ray Avery was hospitalised after being found on a train with blood poisoning. The hospital called the school he attended and they sent the gardening teacher Jack Wise to help him. While in hospital the nurses found a rucksack full of books. Sir Ray believes the books made the nurses realise he may be interested in education. It was then that Mr Wise gave Sir Ray a choice: “go to a Borstal-like juvenile detention centre, or attend Wye College and complete a course he was teaching in rural horticulture,” he recalls. 

He chose the rural horticulture course. It was there at Wye College that he realised his life could be better than it had been. After completing the horticulture course, he secured himself a position as a pharmaceutical laboratory technician while studying biochemistry and chemistry on the side. He worked hard and eventually made his way to the top of his field. But in 1970 he left England with a will and a want to travel and three years later he made New Zealand his home. He claims that New Zealand is a country of dreamers and believes there is a unique freedom and adventurousness about Kiwis. 

Sir Ray is also proud of the many New Zealanders right around the world making huge advances in multiple fields. “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 percent of the chips used in mobile phones and TVs around the world.’’

Here in New Zealand Sir Ray became a founding member of the Auckland University School of Medicine’s Department of Clinical Pharmacology and worked as a Technical Director at Douglas Pharmaceuticals. However, it wasn’t until he was approached by an individual acting on behalf of the legendary Fred Hollows that Sir Ray found his calling. Fred Hollows had previously been crowned Australian of the Year in 1990 for his work in restoring eyesight of those in developing countries and wanted to build factories in third world countries such as Eritrea and Nepal to manufacture and provide lenses at cost which would mean those living in these third world countries would have their eyesight restored for a much more affordable price. 

So, in 1993, Sir Ray found himself in Eritrea, east Africa, with the burdensome and what seemed impossible task of building factories to produce these lenses in a country with very limited and finite resources. Then something terrible happened – Fred Hollows passed away after a battle with cancer.

‘’I was there initially to see whether or not it could be done… However on the way out there Fred had actually died and I had promised him on his deathbed that I would get the job done.’’ 

Although Sir Ray had promised Hollows he would complete the project, it became apparent it couldn’t be done. “I couldn’t find cement, I couldn’t find any power cords, there was no running water…’’ 

Sir Ray then rung Gabi Hollows, Fred Hollows’ wife, to break the news that the project her husband had devoted his life to couldn’t be done. He decided to pack his things and head home. 

However as he was leaving Eritrea, a war torn country, a young boy caught Sir Ray’s eye. 

‘’I saw a lady with a boy on her back as I was cueing to go home, this young boy was clearly devastated by war… He had burns all over him and was missing an eye socket.’’ 

Of all the things that Sir Ray had seen in his lifetime, it was the first time that he had confronted the immediate damage the war had had on a person’s life. He went back to his hotel room and after a period of personal reflection decided that although it was near impossible, he promised he would find a way to build the factory. 

‘’I found myself alone in the hotel room, exactly like I was when I was under the railway bridge as a teenager, LED lights, no power, no running water… I felt sorry for myself. I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids and at that moment. I thought that maybe this was the point to my life. I had been made as hard as nails so that I could withstand all of this adversity and build these factories.’’ 

However, it took a while getting the products out globally and it wasn’t until a representative from the World Health Organisation tested the lens and remarkably published a report saying it was the best lens design that he had ever seen that the project started to take flight.

Eventually, in the face of all of the hardship and with the skills and knowledge he had acquired over the years, he fulfilled those promises and completed the construction of the factories against all odds.  

The project was a complete success. Sir Ray had built a factory that produced high quality intraocular lenses and had reduced the prices of these lenses drastically, falling from over $300 US to $6. This huge change in price meant that even those in the poorest regions of the world would have access to the surgery. After the success in Eritrea he designed and commissioned another factory in Nepal in 1997. Together these laboratories now supply 16 percent of the world’s market for intraocular lenses. 

Given these new factories it is estimated that by the year 2020, 30 million people will have benefited from Sir Ray’s development of intraocular lenses. With those sorts of numbers it’s easy to sit back and reflect, perhaps put the feet up for a while and enjoy a cup of tea, but Sir Ray insists that the only way is to keep looking forward and trying to change the normal. 

‘’I’m a bit like an Italian race car driver, what’s behind me doesn’t matter.’’ 

Sir Ray is adamant that innovation is simply a bi-creation of observation and whilst working at the Fred Hollows Foundation he could see a few things of concern in developing countries. He decided in 2003 to go off on his own and created Medicine Mondiale, a company dedicated to making healthcare accessible for everyone around the globe. 

Whilst visiting Nepal he saw a number of old and unused baby incubators hiding away in the corner. These incubators, Sir Ray explains, had an average life cycle of months, sadly not designed to work in developing countries. However he found that with the help of a Swiss army knife he was able to unlock the filter and reset the overload switch, giving the incubator of few more months of life. Clearly an alternative was needed. 

So Sir Ray went about creating a new incubator. It is designed to be indestructible, purifies its own air and water, runs continuously without the need for new parts or maintenance and most of all costs only $2000, as opposed to other incubators which generally cost upwards of $35,000.

When the average individual would sit complacent after achieving what Sir Ray has achieved, he himself remains humble and upbeat about the possibility of the future and all that can be accomplished. He remains adamant that when people come together, amazing things can be achieved. 

“If someone is inspirational enough to lead and get people behind them it shows that you can really make a difference.’’

This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2016.
Posted 11:38am Sunday 1st May 2016 by Hugh Baird.