Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Sir Ray Avery on Sir Ray Avery (and helping people through science)

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing heaps of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. For this edition, Idealog publisher-at-large Vincent Heeringa speaks with scientist, innovator, and former-New Zealander of the Year, Sir Ray Avery.

Vincent Heeringa: My special guest is Ray Avery, Sir Ray Avery actually to you, who is the founder of medicine Mondiale amongst many other things, named New Zealander of the year, but you're not even a proper New Zealander. Why did they give you a medal?

Ray Avery: That was my adopted country, so they gave me one because they love me.

What have you done that makes you so adorable, apart from being bald and short?

I develop disruptive technology and I think New Zealand is the right country to do that in. I think it's probably the cleverest country in the world in terms of the inventions that we come up. I fitted right in. The other thing about New Zealand is that we've got 3 characteristics that no other country has got. That is we're not fond of rules. We've no respect for the status quo, and we dream really, really big. That fits my personality.

You had a very interesting journey to get here. I think you grew up largely in an orphanage is that right?

I was in a series of orphanages until I was 14. Then I ran away and started my career by going to the library everyday. I was living under a railway bridge, so I'd go to the library everyday and read the Encyclopedia Britannica. Which is like the google of the day. I didn't learn Algebra, but I learned a whole lot of other stuff.

Leaving the orphanage allowed you ... I remember you telling me once, for the first time you were allowed to stay up at night and read.

Yeah, my reading was a great escape both from a romantic novel kind of thing, like Treasure Island, but also just learning about the way things worked. I work out how a dynamo works, then I'd pull it apart and see if I could fix it or make a generator out of it. I was always trying to do things with stuff. Having no parents and having no any guidance at all allowed me to be really adventurous.

How did you go from all of that to getting into higher education and earning the degrees that you do?

I picked up on the streets of London, I cut my leg and it got infected. I was taken off to hospital. When I woke up, there was a grizzled social worker there called Jack Wise. He gave me a choice. He said look, 'You've run away from the orphanage so many times, we're going to have to put you in a Borstal which is like a jail for kids, or you can come down to Southern England with me, take an internship with agriculture research college. It's like Borstal with grass.' I'll do that.

This was a career academic place full of career academics that were lords of the land. They gave me two things. They gave me a vocabulary because they're all landed gentry. Some of them had castles. It was like Brideshead Revisited I was taken off the streets and literally put into a place where they said, 'Good Lord, Ray, you can't talk properly. We'll educate you. You can't go to dance at the Hunt Balls if you can't dance. You'll go to dance classes. You'll need to learn tennis and bridge if you're going to function.' So I had this other education which was dangerous because it was like giving symtex to a serial bomber. I wanted to use those skills to build the wrong things like seduce women and make a lot of money. Which I did.

At least the latter you'll confess to. I just wonder what they would say if you went back now and introduced yourself as Sir Ray Avery?

I think they'd probably be proud. They'd probably say we did a good job. They really did take me under the wing and give me the beginnings of a scientific education and a radar at that time. I had a radar X in Royal Academy of Art because I needed that to fit into society. Thankfully, I got that knocked out of me west of Australia.

What brought you to New Zealand as a young man?

I ran out of land. I was traveling over the land. I had made a bit of money in the UK. I really couldn't fit in anymore. I didn't go to the right Brick Universities. I went on an adventure to find myself. It took about a year and a half before I landed in New Zealand, but I went to all the good countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and for the first time saw abject poverty. I didn't know what to do about it, but it had a lasting impression on me. Then when I arrived in New Zealand, literally from the moment I stepped off the plane, I found home. Everything that happened to me really started to mold me into becoming a New Zealander. New Zealanders don't really understand what makes them the way that they are. I think as an immigrant, I could see just how adventurous and clever and not afraid to change things or do things beyond their capabilities.

Ray, tell us about medicine Mondiale. You invent for people who necessarily couldn't afford your inventions.

What we do is we make modern healthcare accessible to everybody. That's really what we do. Let's say it's people in the first world and in the developing world. We find ways to use technology to jump over some of the obstacles to providing first class medical care. We've got some nutritional products coming out early next year which can revolutionize the treatment of protein and energy malnutrition. Next year also, the low-cost infant incubator gets out through the Pacific area. We've got IV infusion.

You ran over that really quickly. Low-cost infant incubator?

Yeah, that's an incubator that costs two grand, but it's specifically designed to work in the most terrifying environments. In developing countries, incubators only last about 6 months. The little footer at the end of the incubator specifications that say, "Must be used in an air conditioned room between 25-35 degrees." It just doesn't happen in sub-Sahara Africa or Nepal. We had to design something that purified its own water. Basically, would work of it's own batteries for long periods of time when the power is off and constantly sterilize the air inside it. We've done that. It's patented technology. The real trick now is this next stage of seeing what else we can add to it. We've got noise canceling capabilities now inside the incubator. With another company, Visual Monitoring, we're connecting the babies up to the cloud so we can monitor them remotely anywhere in the world.

These are great ideas. And they work. The working part is so important for innovation.

That's the other thing about innovation. I think innovation, the proper tiliology for 'innovation' is actually getting it to market. It's just an idea unless you actually get it to market. What we do is not product development. We do what we call product realization. That really starts at determination of the customer's statement of need even before we start making the product. Then we actually work out all the marketing tools we're going to use because we need to know how we're going to sell it and what really are the benefits of this technology. Have we missed something? Because if you miss one customer statement of need out, they won't like it.

You're a marketer first before you're an engineer?

What I do is I always find customers that have got a problem. I don't go out thinking of an idea and then trying to find run around the streets saying, "I've got a fluorescent Pogo stick and you'll really love this. When you jump it plays music." I've got to convince somebody to buy that. On the other hand, if it's something that they actually physically need, then they're going to love you for it. Modern technology is really just making sure you clip every single customer statement of need. We have three guys in Paris for instance. They couldn't find a cab home. Their three statements of need were they didn't know the local language, didn't have any local currency, and they didn't know where they were. So I invented Uber and away you go.

If you have advice for young entrepreneurs, young inventors, what would it be?

Be absolutely customer-centric. Try and see something around you, observation is the key to innovation. Every invention pretty much known to man is through one person seeing one thing that everybody could see, but they see it and they act on that. Then they actually sort out the customer statement of need through the whole delivery system. Then if you fulfill enough of those customer statement of needs, you've got a good product. Most companies fail because they develop products that really don't have a customer.

Ray, I want to talk about I suppose the motivation for innovation. You were doing okay in your career in the pharmaceutical sector I think, working for Douglas pharmaceutical is that right?


There was a life changing moment when you bumped into someone. Can you tell us about that?

I met Fred Hollows. I was invited to meet him because I was building plants. I'd left Douglas and we'd set up a company called the Keisan Group. We were building plants in China and Asia. Somebody said, "Fred Hollows wants to build intraocular lens laboratory in Eritrea. I think you may be able to help him." I was invited to meet Fred. Following the meeting with Fred, I promised him I'd go up to Eritrea and at least have a look. That was the beginning of the big change in my life.

When I got there, the whole place was munted. There was nothing working at all, no cement works, no electricity. I knew that it really couldn't be done, but when I was queuing to tell Gabby Hollows, Fred had conveniently died. I promised him on his death-bed that I would do this. I was off the hook.

That's the best excuse ever.

That's right. Thankfully we deliver I might meet Fred somewhere else. I was queuing in a queue to the only telephone that worked in town at the post office. This woman in front had a baby on her back and it started to cry and they unwrapped it. All the one side of its face was missing with napalm burns. I'd never seen war up close and personal. I left the queue and went back to the hotel, drank half a bottle of whiskey which is what Ii typically do when the shit hits the fan and I don't know what to do. It just quiets things down just enough.

A little bit of inspiration.

A little bit of inspiration. In the morning, I got up and I phoned Gabby and said it would be bloody near impossible to build the plant, but I'd guarantee that we do it. It's in the middle of the night that I guess I had a catharsis where that little kid deserved a chance at life. I had all the tools and the knowledge to be able to do that. That was the moment I thought, "I should spend the rest of my life actually trying to fix things like that rather than make a pile of money."

I wasn't married at that stage and I had this band of brothers that would follow me around the world building plants. We decided that we'd take at least some of the profits from the company and put them into purposes. That's when medicine Mondiale was born. Now we have about 200 people working for us I think around the world working on different parts of technology.

Why are they working for you? What did you do to motivate them?

The thing is that most of the people have a lot of ... One of the guys, he's a guy who used to work for Tesla. He works in Australia. He's making power supplies for a whole number of different companies. When I approached him and said, "Look, do something useful with your life. Just make the best ... If you were allowed to make the best and the most robust power supply in the whole world, how would you go about doing that? Do it for us for free." He spent the last two years doing that. He gets the chance to use his secular skills to make a difference.

Whether it's our patent attorneys or the guys that lay vinyls in the hospitals. We call him vinyl. We don't know what his real name is anymore. Neither does he because he's had so much solvent. We sent him off and he lays the vinyl. Who'd have thought a vinyl layer could contribute to global healthcare. It's about you using your particular skills, even if it's somebody involved in the media. They get a chance to tell people and that then gets somebody else on board. We're kind of  like a movement, not quite a cult, but we act a bit more like a cult because we all believe that we can change the world.

I was in a Ted conference. This is where the whole New Zealand thing comes to bear. I was at the Ted conference in America. This big Texan came up to me and said, "I loved your talk, boy." I said, "That's nice". He said, "You got a card?" I gave him a business card. On the back, it says change the world. He looked at the card and he says, "That's a good American statement." I said, "Fuck off!" Because we're Kiwis and that's what we do. We actually do believe we can change the world. We have and we will continue to do so. I think that's what makes us powerful.

That's a very important part of business. If you can put a team together that's got all the bits you need to make a successful business and they all believe in the idea, then you can actually make a success of that business.

Have you stopped believing in business and for profit enterprise?

I don't believe that it's going to get us out of the primordial soup that we're producing. I think we need to have much more social enterprises, but I don't think that I've seen any instruments that actually trying to do that. I know that we've got Richard's plan B, but we really rely on a big merge shift from the big corporate. The reality is that they are profit driven through shareholders and so on. What we try and do is build social enterprises which make a profit. Distribution systems don't work on charity, so we make a profit through distributing our products, but we reinvest that back into  new technology which can make the world a better place for us and our people.

There's a lot of concern, quite legitimate concern about the environmental cost of business. Yet we all enjoy the upside of business as entrepreneurs ourselves and as consumers. Is that a trade-off that we have to make? Is there something in between or is that too idealistic?

I think in our society, it's probably too idealistic. I think we won't really try and solve things like global warming until the water's actually lapping around our ankles. I was watching a program last night on prawn fishing. It's a highly intensive thing. It's very distraction. If you tell people that they shouldn't eat prawns because it's not good for us and our planet, that's a big ask. What will hopefully happen is that we can use technology in better ways that don't eat up the huge resources. We tend to move from one resource to another. Probably in 20 years time, the biggest problem we're going to have is with rare earths. They're not particularly rare in terms of their distribution through the world, but the concentration of them is greatest in places like China. They make 90% of the rare earths.

They go into everything: phones, flat screen TVs and we're eating that up at huge rates. You're going to see the cost of those items go up over the next couple of decades. We build that into our structures. We do failure mode cause risk analysis for this customer-centric thing.

Say that slowly. A failure-

Failure mode cause risk analysis which is what can go wrong. Which is why I didn't get married until I was 60. Got to do due diligence. It is about thinking about all the things that can go wrong with your business and what's going to disrupt your business. You can see what's happened with something like the lighting industry. The lighting industry stayed the same for billions of years when we just were burning animal fat and candles in caves. Then electricity came along into houses and that made incandescent lights the favorite thing. Then that lasted for about 80 years. Then we had halogen lamps. They only lasted about 20 years before LED's took them over. That all worked because it was an unimbedded system. In other words, you could just replace those things in your light socket.

We have technology today which could get rid of a lot of the cost by running an induction charging cable right through the whole house and then velcroing on LED's where you want them. That's literally taking them with you. That won't happen because it's an embedded system because the commercial people who put wiring into your house don't want to do it and so forth and so on. Although we sometimes have technologies which can improve our outcomes, it all comes back to business. embedded systems like healthcare, transportation don't allow technology to be uplifted.

It's safer we actually have a plane with no pilot, but we wouldn't get on a plane with no pilot.

Not given what's happened to the last few accidents. That's almost a depressing thought. It sounds like changing the world is impossible.

No it isn't. It's the idea of the idea. We're changing the world for hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions of people by the time we get our nutritional products out. If you become a major player in that business, then you can make a lot of noise about that and say this is a success story.

We're doing it ... A normal aide organization doesn't act on the scale that we do typically. There's 20 million people walking around with one of my lenses. That means that you can change the world. One person can change the world. We hope that with our nutritional products that in the next 20 years, that will impact positively on half a billion kids in sub-Sahara Africa. We're rolling out the product in schools in New Zealand because we still got a micro-nutrient problem, Malagasy-nutrition problem in schools in New Zealand.

It's hard to believe isn't it, but it's actually true.

It's true.

You can change things.

Somebody's got to ... what I'm really identifying is that there is a hill to climb. If you don't admit there's a hill to climb, then you can't find solutions to that. That's what we do is say how can you get around those issues trying to get ... I can get a bi-metric monitoring thing which I hold up against my nose and it'll measure the pixilation of the blood going through my nose. Measure my heartbeat. I can use that data personally do what i like with it.

If I want to measure heartbeat in a hospital, it's going to take me seven years and an FDA approval process before I can get it there because they're embedded processes. We have long lead times for good technologies in medical embedded systems, transportation.

You could argue, we could change the government regulations to fast track some of these things like we do with medicine, but it's going to take lobbying groups and somebody to stand up and start talking like that. I think in New Zealand, we're very well placed to actually start those dialogues because we've got that one first rule. We're not fond of rules. We just break them and get on and do the things and talk to government. The same demographic in Auckland as there are in Silicon Valley. What we've got to do is start telling the world how clever we are with all the inventions we take to the world. Right now, there are billions and billions of people using kiwi technology that Kiwi's don't know about.

Such as?

The disposable hydro-ceramic syringe that's touched more people than Google. It was invented by a pharmacist in Timaru. The mobile phone works because of the charging systems worked out for firing up chips from Buckley engineering. Your favorite things like Xero are taking the world by storm in terms of software applications. We've got power by proxy and world leaders in induction charging. Any movie that you're watching has got some embedded technology from Weta Workshops their animations studios. What made me really proud at the end of the world cup because we shouldn't have won the world cup because we don't have the demographics to actually win the world cup. Europe has got about 9 times the able-bodied men that we can put together, though we won because we believed in ourselves. What made me really, really happy was that when they blew that last whistle, that whistle was also invented by Kiwi.