AIB Featured Business Leader – Sir Ray Avery
Sir Ray Avery has a story that can’t fail to inspire. A scientist, inventor and social entrepreneur, Sir Avery made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. Amongst his achievements are the design of an intra-ocular lens for the Fred Hollows Association, a high-tech and low-cost infant incubator for premature babies, and a formula food used for treating malnutrition. In 2003, he founded the organisation Medicine Mondiale, committed to providing medicine and medical technology to the developing world. He was knighted in 2011 for his contributions to science and his philanthropic efforts and has published a bestselling autobiography, Rebel With a Cause.
But Sir Avery didn’t start with any of the glories that have been heaped upon him. Nor, in fact, did his life start in New Zealand. Avery was born in Kent, England, and grew up without parents. His early years were spent in an orphanage, and from there to a series of foster homes which he describes as offering only ‘systematic abuse’ and cruelty in place of comfort and shelter. To add to his troubles, Avery had untreated glue ear, meaning that he found it difficult to listen and understand at school and was labelled stupid as a result. He has said that simply surviving his childhood is the toughest thing he’s ever done.
By fourteen, Avery was living rough, sleeping under bridges and being picked up by the police from time to time. What education he had was largely gleaned from the public library, where he would read for hours in the warmth, and what income he had came from building bicycles and radios from salvaged parts and selling them to school mates. At sixteen, his dream was to open a bicycle shop, but then he met Jack Wise. Wise was a social worker and teacher, who took him under his wing. Encouraged, Avery went on to Wye College, a prestigious agricultural college in Kent, and graduated as a scientist. He worked as an analyst in laboratories, and as he began to make money he immediately invested it back into those laboratories.
By now, well into his twenties and with a number of entrepreneurial endeavours on the side, Avery was living the good life. He enjoyed his work, and after his impoverished childhood, sought out a life of ease. On a whim, as he tells it, he sold up and headed to New Zealand in in 1973. Immediately charmed by the ‘can-do’ attitude of the Kiwis, he settled down in Auckland, becoming a citizen only nine months after his arrival.
He continued to conduct experiments, becoming a founding member of the Department of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Auckland School of Medicine before taking a position as the technical director of Douglas Pharmaceuticals. There he designed drug manufacturing facilities until 1992 when he moved to the Fred Hollows Foundation. Working in the developing world to treat blindness and improve sight restorative technologies, Avery designed state of the art intraocular lens manufacturing facilities in Eritrea and Nepal. His labs, and those who have followed in his footsteps, have seen the cost of lenses go from $300 to only $6, making cataract treatment available to even the poorest communities.
From there, Avery continued to work to improve the technology, but also to ensure that the design was profitable. He gifted the patent for the intraocular lens to the Fred Hollows Foundation, and has lifted other patents to allow generic models to be made at low cost and improve accessibility. He also, however, believes in technology translation.
Avery established Medicine Mondiale in 2003. The foundation creates low cost solutions to health problems in developing countries, with a focus on self-sustainability in the longer term. Amongst the inventions that Avery has created to that end are an IV flow controller which helps administer intravenous drugs easily and a low cost high tech incubator for premature babies. Both are low cost solutions that help developing countries safeguard their citizens’ health: both are useful too in the developed world and have turned a profit for the foundation in that sphere.
In pursuing his causes, Avery hasn’t been shy about furthering his own. He’s always made sure that his inventions have made a profit for him as well as his foundation, and although his net worth isn’t a matter of public record, he’s indisputably wealthy. These days, he will admit to his “womanising past and love of fast cars”, the years in which he “had everything” but “just didn’t know what love was – no one had ever shown me”. That changed when, at the age of sixty, he met his now-wife Anna. Unsurprisingly given his age, he had given up on expecting to have a family of his own until that chance encounter in Nepal: he now has two small daughters, Amelia and Anastasia. It is perhaps his proudest achievement in a life filled with them. “I remember sitting on the patio surrounded by my wife and two young daughters”, he told the New Zealand Herald, “surrounded by sunshine, enjoying a good glass of wine when I looked around and thought, ‘This is it, I’ve got a family, I’ve made it.’”
Made it he certainly has. From street dweller to New Zealander of the Year, Sir Ray Avery’s story is one of triumph over adversity – and it’s not over yet.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Big Idea, New Zealand Herald, Random Books New Zealand, stuff.co.nz and Idealog.