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Be the change

columns Updated: Sep 04, 2010 21:49 IST
Tithiya Sharma

Around the world in 54 weeks
Destination 11: New Zealand

Grins Ray Avery, as he signs his autobiography Rebel With a Cause.

"I really hope my book makes it to the bestseller list in New Zealand. It's currently number four on the list, the current best seller is about bread! Only because we don't want people thinking Kiwis like their bread more than changing the world!"

I flip through my autographed copy as I leave his home and stop dead in my tracks as I read these opening lines from a chapter. "I lived under a railway bridge for the next eight months."

Ray had mentioned having a rough childhood, but I never imagined it this rough. Abandoned and abused by his parents, Avery grew up in orphanages and foster homes. His story could have turned out very differently, but instead of Ray Avery the social menace and deviant, I had just spent the morning with Ray Avery-New Zealander of the Year, 2010.

In the unremarkable suburb of Mount Eden in Auckland, Avery is working in his home laboratory on some ideas that will change the world. He moved to New Zealand 40 years ago and had a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. In 2003, he established Medicine Mondiale, an independent development agency and charity.

The company pools the talent of some incredibly smart people — most of whom volunteer their time — to create low-cost solutions to combat health issues plaguing the poorest in the world.

Some of his pet projects include the Intraocular Lenses to combat cataract blindness, establishing the laboratories and technology needed to make them in challenging environments such as Nepal and Eritrea. Avery's invention brought the price of the lens down from US $300 to US $10. It has restored the sight of over 16 million people. "I hope by the time I die, the number will be up to 40 million people", he says.

Born in 1947, Avery states casually that he probably has another 5,000 days to live. And he's spending his time exceptionally well. Another of Avery's inventions is a low cost, high tech incubator. Deconstruction the design, functions and technology to understand its flaws and limitation. The 'LifeRaft' incubator that he and his team created is energy efficient and durable. It drastically cuts the risk of bacterial infections and costs a fraction of the traditional incubators in use today. Soon, thousands of babies will get a fighting chance with Ray Avery's 'LifeRaft'.

"Kiwis are highly under appreciated for their achievements. They are a clever, inventive lot but they are not good with getting the word out about their work."

Avery goes on to list many firsts by Kiwis — a Kiwi was the first to split the atom; Kiwis also made the single use disposable syringe and the (highly debatable) first powered flight in the world.

Another one of Avery's simple but life-saving inventions is the intravenous flow controller — a simple contraption that controls and prevents fatal drug administration errors. Avery was shocked that no one had thought of this considering the number of fatalities due to accidental overdosing of patients through IV.

Medical Mondiale is also developing a range of extremely cost effective nutritional supplements for the treatment of dehydration and protein energy malnutrition in infants. The same technology will be used to create a range of products for endurance athletes in the developed world.

"Businesses are commercial creatures, but it is possible to do good, change the world and make the money to keep you going," says Avery.

I'm finally starting to understand that Kiwi spirit!

(Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way. To follow Tithiya's journey, log on to )