An interview with Ray Avery

Renee Liang sits down for a cuppa with Ray Avery, 2010 Blake Medalist and New Zealander of the Ye

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Sir Peter Blake Emerging Leader Renee Liang sits down for a cuppa with Ray Avery, 2010 Blake Medalist and New Zealander of the Year.

The inventor, social anthropologist, scientist and entrepreneur shares his story of 'beating the odds stacked against him'. “You can’t change the cards you’re dealt – you have to play them.”

Ray Avery was the keynote speaker at Survive & Thrive, in Auckland on July 8.

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Ray Avery is a man who’s beaten the odds.  He’s as much of a hero as our All Whites team. In fact, at the risk of bringing down the wrath of the footy-loving public, not to mention my currently sleep-deprived boyfriend, I’d say he’s more of a hero.  This is simply based on the decades that Ray has single mindedly and determinedly spent “making the world a better place.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’ve driven through cold winter rain to meet Ray at his home, and before we start talking, he insists on making me feel better with a cup of tea.  (One milk and one sugar.)  He confides that he never prepares for interviews or speeches – on the basis that it would be disrespectful to his audience.  He prefers to wait until he can gauge them, to decide what will be the best way to engage them in what he’s saying.  It is a telling clue to the kind of man Ray is.

His life story reads like something a playwright would pounce on: abandoned in an orphanage by his damaged parents, he slept under bridges in London, was picked up by police, fought his way through an education, and eventually found his way to NZ where, he says, he was seduced by the ‘can-do’ Kiwi attitude.  He ended up co-founding the Department of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine and making a lot of money with his drug discoveries.  Now he helps millions of people in the third world using first world, state-of-the-art technology.  His work has been recognized by his adopted nation with many honours, including the 2010 New Zealander of the Year and now the Blake Medal for outstanding leadership.

This story of adversity overcome is something we come back to many times during our conversation, and it’s clear that this narrative is a driving force in Ray’s life.  What made him beat the odds stacked against him? His answer is simple, and brutal: he had to. Each time he survived, it strengthened his determination to get through. “You can’t change the cards you’re dealt – you have to play them.”

I ask Ray what resiliencies helped him to survive.  It doesn’t seem that he had many adult role models. He tells the harrowing story of seeing the boy in the orphanage bed next to him sexually abused, and of developing a survival system. “People used to come to the orphanage, to take us on outings. In those days anyone could come. I’d sit in the corner and rapidly assess each person as they came in. If I decided I didn’t trust them, I’d make myself as unattractive as possible, so they wouldn’t pick me.”  He demonstrates.

One thing young Ray did have was an insatiable thirst for knowledge. “My freedom was to read – anything from comics to Treasure Island.  I found my heroes in all sorts of places. Jason and the Argonauts were role models.  William Caxton was another – he bought a printing press and printed off the Canterbury Tales.  It changed the world at the time.”

“Knowledge allows you to dream bigger. When I was sixteen my dream was to own a bicycle shop.  But now – my dream is to improve health care globally.”  Ray shows me designs for his low-cost Intra Ocular Lenses for cataract surgery, expected to restore the sight to 30 million people by year 2020. He also me a picture of his futuristic infant incubator which has been designed with simplicity in mind. Pulling out a sheet of blank paper from the printer, he explains the concepts – air flow, humidity, UV sterilizers – carefully to me.  He does it without patronizing, and it’s clear he’s had a lot of practice.  I think of all the business leaders, potential funders and village elders he would have needed to convince.

I start to realize that Ray’s success stems partly from his ability to sit at the interface of many fields.  During our talk he describes himself variously as an inventor, social anthropologist, scientist and entrepreneur.  The different labels help him to connect with his target audience in the most effective way. It also helps him pull together the right skill set to solve each problem. “Science is interconnected, and you can apply one piece of science to another problem. “  I reflect on this.  It’s true for the arts as much as for science.

How can a pharmacologist – a man that works with molecules and chemicals - end up designing high-tech infant incubators?  Ray tells the story of how he found the engineers who helped him with the design. “I went out there and they had all these different models of parking meters, made for Auckland City Council, in their office. They spent their lives making parking meters! So I said to them, do something bloody useful for a change.”  Ray’s organization, Medicine Mondiale, designs and manufactures high-tech goods using a ‘brains trust’, many of whom donate their time in return for the fulfillment of knowing that their skills are being put to good use.  The factories are located locally in Third World countries, but are run on ISO9000 systems of quality control and safety.

Ray doesn’t believe that a charity should run at a loss.  Although he has gifted the patent for the intraocular lens to benefit the Fred Hollows foundation, and has lifted other patents to ensure wide uptake in the Third World, he also believes in technology translation. In short, profit can be made from applying his discoveries to problems in the well-heeled First World. This is Ray the businessman speaking. “You don’t get something for free. I’m committed to making enough profit to maintain Mondiale, so we can keep going.”

There was a time when Ray was very successful in business.  “I had everything – fast cars, women.  But I found I couldn’t love any of them. I just didn’t know what love was – no one had ever shown me.”  He tells me how he thought strength was found in avoiding emotional reaction, even when he witnessed his own miracles. “When someone gets their sight back there’s this moment – it’s like seeing God in action.  But I always employed a kind of numbness. I never put myself in the picture.”

But then Ray met Anna. “She was the woman in the white dress – the ideal woman I thought I’d never have.” Anna was a leading development worker and the couple chased each other around the world for a few years, liaising in war-torn countries.  Eventually they got married and Ray now has two women in his life – Anna and his 20-month old daughter Amelia.  His face softens as he shows me Amelia’s photo on his cell phone – a little girl looking coyly up at the camera. “I never thought it would happen – I was in my sixties when I became a parent.”

I recognize in his voice the wonder of a father.  And it’s clear that Ray Avery, scientist, inventor, humanitarian, has finally got what he deserved. He has found love.

Sir Peter Blake once famously said, "Having vision is not enough. Change comes through realising the vision and turning it into a reality. It is easy to espouse worthy goals, values and policies; the hard part is implementation." 

I think that Ray Avery is one such leader – a no-bullshit go-getter who is as comfortable talking to factory workers in Eritrea as he is talking to industry leaders at a black-tie function, or to Kiwi schoolchildren.  And he feels the pressure to continue.  “I’ve calculated I’ve got around 5,000 days left to live.  Do you have an itinerary for your life?  Up until now, my life plan’s been a richochet. But when you calculate it out, there’s a certain urgency.”  It’s both sobering and funny to reflect on this.

My cup of tea has gone cold.  I’ve barely sipped at it.  I forgot to, really.  One last question burns in my mind.  Would he have achieved so much without having his attitudes shaped by adversity?  It’s impossible to answer, so I don’t ask it.  In any case, Ray is committed to shaping the future through action, equalizing the poverty gradient so that no child should ever have to go through what he did.  It’s a satisfying  conclusion to a gripping story.  But hopefully the story’s not over yet.

Ray Avery’s autobiography, Rebel With A Cause, will be released by Random House on August 13.

Written by

Renee Liang

5 Jul 2010

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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