LifePod prototypes at the factory in Chennai. Photo: Supplied

A school principal says he feels disappointed and let down that $2000 it raised did not buy an incubator for a Pacific Island nation, as promised. David Williams reports.

Every term, Timaru’s Bluestone primary school raises money for a good cause. In late 2015, that cause was a LifePod incubator, backed by scientist and former New Zealander of the Year, Sir Ray Avery.

One of the students brought in a magazine article about the incubators and showed principal Ian Poulter. “We contacted the company and were very impressed with what was being suggested,” Poulter says. “We thought it was a great cause to raise money for.”

The entire school, close to 600 students, ran a sausage sizzle and a mufti day. The icing on the cake, bringing the community together, was a talk by psychologist and author Nigel Latta, the proceeds from which rounded off the $2000 needed.

Avery’s charity Medicine Mondiale confirmed the money was received, Poulter says, and the school requested the LifePod built with its money be sent to the Pacific Islands.

Poulter told the Timaru Herald in December 2015: “Our students all agreed this would be a great thing to support and decided they’d like to send a LifePod to one of the Pacific Island nations as it was felt they were our closest neighbours in need.”

It believed the LifePod had been manufactured and sent. Until today.

“I’m disappointed for the children.”  – Ian Poulter

Newsroom’s investigation into LifePods has revealed its not in production to any scale, the units don’t have ISO certification and testing in India hasn’t been confirmed. In March of this year, Mondiale’s website urged donations be made for Lifepod “#800”. Today the website says it’s fundraising for “LifePod #25”.

Poulter tells Newsroom the school trusted Avery “totally” and he wants to hear from the man himself, to explain the reasons for delayed production.

“I’m disappointed for the children. And the reason is that when the children back something like this they do it with good faith and good trust. And when they then learn that perhaps that hasn’t happened as they were led to believe, they’ll start to question many more things.”

Poulter says he’s surprised to hear about the hold-up in production. “I still do trust that [Avery] will do that, but I’m disappointed that there wasn’t communication with us to clarify the situation and why there was the delay.” He adds: “We feel a bit let down.”

Initially, Avery sends Newsroom a copy of an email Medicine Mondiale will send its donors over the coming days. But asked to explain why schools thought they were buying an incubator with their name on the side, he says: “When doing fundraising presentations to schools I have been clear that we needed the money to get the LifePod into production and when they were produced we would send them to the country they selected with their name on it.”

(In 2015, Poulter told the Timaru Herald the LifePod would be delivered the following year. Medicine Mondiale did nothing to correct the record, even though Anna Avery, Ray’s wife, was contacted for comment. She told paper at the time: “Not only are these amazing schoolchildren thinking about and helping others in need, but they seem to have had a lot of fun fundraising.” The story noted 30 schools were sponsoring one or more LifePods.)

Combative response

Kip Marks, a former Fisher and Payker engineer who left the Lifepod project after growing concerned, told Newsroom when he first spoke out that the school fundraising never sat well with him. “Schools are not fundraising facilities.”

But Avery retorts: “Kip needs to get out more.” He adds: “Schools routinely do fundraising activities for a range of activities both for school and third-party related activities.”

Avery promises every school that raised money and specified a country will have an incubator delivered there with the school’s name on it. The delivery schedule will be published in January, he says. He describes the delivery dates as “firm” (his quote marks). “We have been to Fiji to work out the hospital delivery schedule for the Pacific Islands.”

An Auckland school which raised money for an incubator last year by holding gold coin mufti days, a bake sale and ‘LifePod Fridays’ when children bringing a $1 donation could put hearts on ‘heart sheet’ in the administration room, was approached this year to lobby for Avery’s proposed Eden Park fundraising concert.

A note from the Ray Avery Foundation urged the school community: “We need as many people as possible submitting their support to Auckland Council. Simply say ‘yes’ I support a concert for LifePod at Eden Park, February 6, Waitangi Day, 2019. The online form only takes a few minutes and will help so much.”

In his upcoming email to Medicine Mondiale donors – which starts “I wanted to write to you personally” – Avery says the LifePod fundraising campaign was launched in November 2014 to raise $2 million “to get the LifePod to the production stage”. Eventually, $1.6 million was raised. “The money was spent on designing the incubator, the production of dies to make the component parts and validating and testing the incubator’s performance.”

Production has passed to its manufacturing partner, India Phoenix Medical Systems Ltd, which has a purpose-built factory, with capacity to make 180 LifePods a week, he says.

“I know some of you may be concerned that it has taken so long to get the LifePod into production but safety and reliability are paramount when little babies lives are at stake and when one is doing everything on a shoestring budget everything takes longer.”

Avery says the rollout of the incubator in the Pacific Islands will start next February. In January, an updated delivery time will be sent to donors who have pledged an incubator to a specific country.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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