From poverty to celebrated scientist and a knighthood

Sir Ray Avery's recipe: try, fail, observe, fix, move on

He rose from post-war poverty in Britain to become a celebrated scientist and earn a knighthood. Sir Ray Avery’s story is as much about inspiration as it is achievement.

Undiagnosed short-sightedness, dyslexia and hearing problems meant Sir Ray Avery often struggled to follow what was going on at school. As a result, he regularly found himself seated “at the back of the classroom and left alone”.

The renowned New Zealand pharmaceutical scientist, who grew up in Britain in “very Dickensian” orphanages, says being ignored gave him a skill that has underpinned his success: the power of observation. 

“The root derivative of pretty much every invention is somebody seeing something [and applying it] to some other discipline that will be game changing,” he says.

At 14, Avery absconded from his orphanage and made a home under a railway bridge. He’d visit places such as the Tate Britain art gallery and the Science Museum to keep warm.

“I’d go every day to the library and read the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” he says. “That gave me a very broad knowledge base.”

It was this daily ritual that helped Avery to teach himself to read – and in the process, overcome his dyslexia. He would find a word and approach strangers asking how it was said.

“The notion that there’s only one way to do something is inane,” he says. 

Avery credits one of his two life heroes – teacher Jack Wise – with convincing him to return to formal education. After finishing a horticulture course under Wise’s tutelage, Avery landed a job as a laboratory technician and began studying chemistry and biochemistry part-time. 

He soon worked out that to get somewhere, he’d need to make plans. Not one to dream small, his first was to become a millionaire by age 26.

“I worked very hard and made lots of money, but I found it didn’t necessarily make me happy,” he recalls.

“If you dream big, you’re more likely to be successful than if you have a modest plan and try to do it in a stepped process. Most people have a capacity to do much more than they imagined.”

Avery then spent a couple of years travelling through India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“It had a huge impact on me in terms of how desperate some of those places were,” he says.

“It took me another decade or so to work out that I wanted to use my skills to make a difference.”

Named the inaugural New Zealander of the Year in 2010 and knighted for his services to philanthropy in 2011, Avery used his pharmaceutical background to begin disrupting the healthcare industry. Back in 2003, he launched Medicine Mondiale, a global network of experts who donate their time to developing accessible healthcare solutions.

The development agency’s suite of products includes a range of amino acid bars and supplements derived from the New Zealand kiwifruit and poultry processing industries. Their nutrients can be rapidly absorbed to build muscle tissue, potentially saving thousands of malnourished children from dying of repeated episodes of diarrhoea. 

“When I first came to New Zealand,” says Avery, “I saw Maoris squeezing kiwifruit onto steak – it tenderises it within two to three hours. We realised we could take big protein molecules and break them down into amino acids.”

The strength of Medicine Mondiale’s business model – and what makes it succeed where other aid agencies have failed – is its commercial approach. Products such as amino acid bars aren’t simply given away, but sold at a cost that makes them accessible long term in Third World countries.

“Just giving things away for free doesn’t work,” Avery reasons. “If I give you a free plumping-up bar when you’ve got diarrhoea and then disappear, it doesn’t help at all, because you need access to the nutrition for the rest of your life.”

Another breakthrough product from Medicine Mondiale is the LifePod incubator for premature babies. It filters its own water, lasts at least 10 years and costs US$2000, far cheaper than the US$35,000 price of traditional incubators that are designed to only operate in air conditioning and need regular servicing, rendering them near-useless in harsh environments.

Avery spent years visiting hospitals in developing countries while working with the Fred Hollows Foundation.

“The two most common things I would see were a [broken] incubator pushed into a corner and a dead baby waiting to be collected by relatives,” he says. 

The fact that the LifePod purifies water is crucial. Unboiled E. coli-infected water is commonly used in incubators in developing nations, and this can cause bacterial infections that rapidly kill babies. Funding of US$2 million is needed to launch the LifePod on a large scale. Medicine Mondiale is using crowdfunding to kickstart production, and about US$1 million has been raised so far.

Having endured a troubled childhood, Avery wants his two daughters, both under 10, to be “proud of dad”. In a way, his work with children and families in developing countries resonates with his own rough start in life.

“One of those kids might grow up to become another Nelson Mandela,” he says. “An accident of birth should not mean they should be relegated to death.”

Read next: What does financially effective global charity look like?

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May 2016
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