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The mark of a master is the work of the student

  • sir-ray-avery

Every year, Sir Ray Avery takes on Unitec students like Mike Czarny to help with projects and mentor them in return. Sometimes with extraordinary results.

Scientist, inventor, author, entrepreneur, altruist: there are any number of descriptions for Sir Ray Avery, the individual once voted New Zealand’s Most Trusted Person. Today, though, he’s happy to be known as founder and CEO of Medicine Mondiale, an organisation dedicated to improving life for the word’s poor through technological innovation. 

In its quest to do so, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Unitec that lets groups of students work on secondment with the company. That’s how Creative Industries student Mike Czarny ended up working with Sir Ray on his LifePod incubator project. “I’m passionate about connecting communities and projects with tertiary learning,” says Sir Ray. “It’s a great way to build students’ understanding of the constraints faced in the real world: things like what it takes to get something market-ready, not just technically sorted. And it’s a great way for tertiary students to apply their skills to real world issues.”

The Medicine Mondiale CEO is also quick to acknowledge that the benefits flow both ways. “Mike exemplified the passion and independent thinking we’ve come to expect from Unitec’s students,” he says. In fact Mike’s input into the LifePod project was extraordinarily valuable, and a prime example of how the students work with a mentor like Avery. “I like the Unitec ads that say ‘Looks like a classroom to us’ because that’s how we work too: wherever it works best. And if you looked at us working, the question would be ‘Who’s the tutor?’ because we have a very collaborative style. Groups choose their own leader, and I like to let people choose what they want to work on.”

Every band needs a drummer

“Within a group of people there's a great range of skills,” says Sir Ray. “There’s less value in everyone doing the same thing. It’s like a band. You don’t want everyone playing guitar. Someone has to keep the beat: every band needs a drummer. So, by letting the students choose what interests them and pursue it, we get better results.” He also draws a contrast with more conventional educational pathways: “A lot of it just puts people through the same standard process. It’s mostly just memorising stuff and it doesn’t always work for everyone, so talent may be squandered.”

Not that it’s all entirely free-form. Sir Ray emphasises the need for regular check-ins on progress and the constant discipline of real world value. “It really prepares people for work in the outside world. They’re valuable skills to learn, because potential employers demand them.”

Avery is highly appreciative of the resources and opportunities his company gains from working with Unitec students. And he’s got a very open way of working with them. “Rather than set tasks, I tend to ask ‘What do you want to do?’ and we can work out a goal to pursue, a product to work on or a solution to find. It’s what led one group of students to work on the durability and lifetime of the incubator lid. They ended up developing a prototype machine to test it–something I would never have had time to do–and it’s a great example of creative engineering that absolutely applies to the real world.”

Applying Think. Do to LifePod

The opportunity for Mike to make his contribution to the LifePod incubator arose from Sir Ray’s open approach to development. “We had a bit of a shopping list of potential areas,” he says. “The students picked a strand to pursue then split into groups to do it.”

Conventional modern incubators aren't designed to work in the sort of environments frequently found in the developing world. They are expensive, and require frequent repairs and maintenance. They also need purified water and uninterrupted power to function.

Sir Ray and his team have been developing the LifePod incubator specifically for use in less developed countries, at a price of just $2,000 each. LifePods are engineered to purify their own air and water, and will happily run for ten years–in the course of which they can save up to 500 young lives.

There's a great deal to think about in developing any kind of medical equipment, let alone a groundbreaking technical marvel that has to work in challenging conditions. One issue facing the team when Mike joined was that many potential operators, in the places LifePods were designed to operate, would not speak English. The interface that provides control and information is a digital display, or VDU. But if the person operating the machine doesn't understand English–potentially speaking anything from Portuguese to Pidgin–how could the interface be designed to ensure everything worked correctly? With vulnerable young lives at risk, it was an issue that really mattered.

Not so much breaking barriers as flying over them

Avery says the development of the VDU is a perfect example of how the students from Unitec bring real value to his projects. “Mike and his team came up with the idea of using easy-to-understand icons that worked without conventional language. And, because we’re focussed on solving real-world problems, not just having ideas about ideas, they took it through to creating an icon language and the App to display it, then applying it to the VDU. Not only would I have never had time to do it, I would probably not have thought of it. It was a fabulous job. It’s one of the things we benefit from, from the Unitec students. They bring a fresh approach that complements our experience. They’re like bumble bees, which technically shouldn't be able to fly. But they don’t know that, so they do it anyway.”

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