Personalized mouthguards may seem too niche to market, but GuardLab is combining 3D printing, sports tech and oral science to initiate dental innovation.
About a year ago, two sports dentists approached Aidan Butler with a prototype model of a new kind of mouthguard: a neuromuscular fit, built specifically to help open your airways for increased oxygen flow and dissipate any force or impact that could be sustained during exercise by keeping your jaw in the correct occlusal position…
…dental innovation isn’t the sexiest of pitches to sell, but Butler saw an opportunity.
The mouthguards weren’t a new invention – professional sports men, women, even olympians, had access to this technology – the opportunity lay in how to promote this guard to the general public.
“The only way to get these mouthguards was by either seeing a specific dentist or to pay quite a lot of money. I thought ‘how can this trusted bit of science be promoted past the sports stars?’”
Approximately 40 million mouthguards are sold in the USA every year, which represents a large market for GuardLab, the customized mouthguard startup that Butler co-founded to encourage dental innovation within this space.
“Most teenagers and young adults remember getting their first guards moulded. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience but the process was relatively simple and, on a large scale, quite efficient.”
Improvements to technology have a habit though of evolving a simple process and making it look slow.
“We started looking into 3D scanning and then printing: we 3D scan teeth giving us a 3D image of the jaw and then we send that to the printer to make a custom mouthguard in rapid time.”
This system follows a trend that’s taking over a large proportion of the tech market: personalization.
“Protection is everything in this market and by personalizing these guards, people’s jaws and heads are in a better position to withstand knocks.”
It’s not just the personalization enabled by 3D printing that protects the jaw and allows for dental innovation: the science is trusted too.
The first paragraph alluded to the bio-physiological background behind this dental innovation, which is important because for products like these, investors (and consumers) like to know the science is strong.
And not just those two demographics either:
“We have a bunch of well respected athletes behind us: Georgetown Athletics department are now wearing our guards; maidens for the cause if you will.”
Once you have public profile athletes on your team, marketing should be easy, right?
“We started [marketing] in the R&D phase: we had people from the UFC, NFL, national Universities and Olympic gold medallists who all helped us test the early models”
Marketing in the sports tech world, when you have high profile figures willing to help your company if their performance is improved, is the easy part. However, the way in which these moulds need to be scanned meant thinking outside the box.
“One of the hardest parts of the operation is that we physically have to scan your teeth, so we have had to create and scale some dentist distribution networks.”
The opportunity for dental innovation is large: there are over 150, 000 dentists in the US alone for GuardLab to connect and work with in order to create these mouthguards – and nightguards.
“Once you have accurate model of someone’s teeth you can do anything in terms of dentistry.”
For the purposes of clarity GuardLab have 3 products: a mouthguard for sports which sits over your upper jaw; a performance guard that rests on the lower jaw; and a night guard that prevents grinding and clenching – a condition which affects 1 in 3 of us.
For anyone skeptical about the need for different types of guards, science once again steps in.
“There are over 130 muscles surrounding and supporting the jaw and if one of them isn’t in the correct position your alignment can be thrown instantly.”
Dental innovation though is a niche place to find oneself in, but the tech space is an old friend of Butler’s.
He started his own online gambling company back in the UK after he noticed his family business needed to follow the internet or die a slow death. He then moved into software, followed by hardware before ending up across the Atlantic as an MD of an IP law firm in Toronto.
“I was [in Toronto] for 5 years before I set up an office in the USA and in doing so I saw a lot of people with their tech patents looking to monetize their product, that’s how I met the two dentists.”
Furthermore, for someone that’s spent many years working within different markets, Butler has seen some serious changes within the tech hemisphere.
“The most exciting change I’m experiencing is just the pace we’re having to match. You used to be able to have a great idea with time to work it out because everything was self built, now there is the ability to use other peoples tech to develop an idea.”
Help from other spaces is now seen as the norm for startups, but there can be downsides too.
“It’s now harder for [startups] to get around the track because there are so many people competing nowadays; it’s easier to start than it was, but it’s also harder to finish.”
Which is an interesting dilemma for the tech world.
By incorporating tech from other companies and sectors to improve your service, reach or product you subtly tie yourself to that markets innovations and pace.
So when you partner on a multi-sector basis, it can be difficult to keep up.
Dental innovation for example is using 3D printing and scanning technology with dental and bio-physiological knowledge to shake up the sports/health sector.
“Keeping up with all 3 industries has actually been the toughest part: in the world of 3D printing, it’s tough for a small business to operate because every 6 months someone else has brought out a new machine.”
Sports is where Butler and his team have the most fun though and, despite their dental innovation focus, is where they see themselves operating mainly.
“The sports area is really cool because everyone is looking to move the industry forward and we’ve been welcomed with open arms; it’s a cool area to disrupt as well actually.”