health & science

Millionaire funder still backs Ray Avery

Millionaire telecommunications investor Malcolm Dick donated $100,000 towards Sir Ray Avery's LifePod baby incubators to go to Fiji and remains supportive of the project.

Dick told Newsroom the LifePods had taken longer to come to fruition than they should have - "longer than I thought it would" - since the donation was made from his Hawaiiki Cable company.

"It was probably two years ago and it's probably taken a year or 18 months longer than expected. But there's no way it is not going to happen."

Dick made his money from the CallPlus and Slingshot phone companies and has led the project to open a new internet and communications cable across the Pacific.

He personally wanted to help Pacific countries after learning of the risks for babies born premature or with difficulty in places such as Tokelau and even Fiji.

"When my ex-wife was six months pregnant they said 'You cannot go to the islands because if you have an early birth, they do not have the facilities.

"In some of those places it is pretty atrocious. In Tokelau, say, if something goes wrong it is two days in a boat from Samoa."

Avery's Medicine Mondiale charity has been raising money for and developing the LifePod, which would have its own power and water purifier capabilities, for around a decade.

Newsroom has been told by a number of people who've funded, volunteered or worked on the project that there has been less transparency about the progress on the LifePods than there ought to have been.

One leading philanthropist, Sam Morgan, said he had given money in the past to Avery's charity but would not do so again.

Avery's own public statements and documents show repeated target dates for beginning production have come and gone. 

Fundraising efforts on the TheLifepod.co.nz website have talked about raising money for individual LifePods numbered 625 in 2016 and then number 800 in March this year but somehow is now back to raising funds for LifePod number 25.

Dick remains supportive of Avery and what he is trying to do. "When I saw what he was doing I was happy to support that."

He said: "For the life of me, there's no downside."

Avery had more recently put an "aspiration" of producing and deploying the LifePods funded by Dick to up to 20 hospitals in Fiji next year. "We never really gave him timing. When they are done, they are done."

Dick had not experienced difficulties getting information out of Avery. "I haven't asked a lot of detailed or very specific questions."

"It has taken longer than what was envisaged but the alternative is nothing, absolutely nothing, babies dying. I'm still totally supportive of what Ray Avery is doing."

His confidence contrasts with that of a small donor, Clive Beacham, who told RNZ's Checkpoint programme he and his wife had put $10,000 into the LifePod fundraiser for four of the machines three years ago. "We were told our names would be on the LifePods. Later on we found out that the Pods had not been produced and that our not-inconsiderable donation had disappeared into some sort of developmental void.

"I would be very careful about donating to this charity and in particular Ray Avery's tug on our heartstrings of saving one million babies."

During Newsroom's earlier inquiries on the LifePod, journalist Eloise Gibson spoke to Andrew Sinclair, the designer who’s been working full-time in a paid role on the project for about 18 months, after starting as a volunteer.

He’s been to the factory in Chennai twice and on his most recent visit he oversaw about 10 pre-production prototypes being made. He said it was “all coming together” and that the next step was making the design suitable for manufacture and making the various components faster, economical and more intuitive to put together on the factory floor.

That would allow the Lifepod to scale up from a run of 10 to a run of 2000. One of the unusual and challenging aspects was getting all the electronics into one box sitting under the infant, rather than spread around, but they’d decided it was crucial for making the electronics unit easy to replace.

Sinclair said the plan was to get the documentation to get the incubators CE Marked submitted in October and an ISO certificate issued in February so production could start in February or March. Some parts would be coming from New Zealand, Australia, China and elsewhere.

Phoenix Medical Systems was impressive, he said, and they would be responsible for securing the ISO approval once Medicine Mondiale handed them the design files at the end of this year. Before production can start, Phoenix Medical Systems is building a new factory, which Sinclair said was still an empty shell when he visited but by January it would be a state-of-the-art facility with an area set aside for making LifePods. He would likely fly over next year to oversee the first production run, he said.

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