Bite Down for Safety's Sake
Written By Raylene Knutson for Frontier Magazine, Issue 03
Aidan Butler, co-founder and CEO of GuardLab
Look beyond your standard market for unlikely customers
Neuromuscular mouthguards for athletic protection and performance
Getting hit in the head is the reality in many sports. The increasing ubiquity of helmets is a testament to that. Whether it be hockey, skiing, cycling, or many others, head protection is everywhere. Far less common is a piece of safety equipment that could do just as much to protect against injuries: the mouthguard.
Aidan Butler is the CEO and co-founder of GuardLab, a New York-based startup. “Standard mouthguards are typically applicable to a small number of sports — you’ve got your fight sports, American football, rugby, lacrosse, hockey, and basketball. When we started, that’s where our focus was,” says Butler. Yet athletes from many unexpected sports are wearing GuardLab’s performance guards, including Olympic rowers, fencers, soccer players, and some of the best baseball players. “All of these sports you’d never assumed would need a mouthguard.”
GuardLab uses intraoral 3D-scanning and 3D-printing technology to create a custom mouthguard that fits better than a standard one. Butler says the mouthguard’s neuromuscular fit is designed to help open airways for increased oxygen flow and to dissipate force and impact sustained during contact and exercise by keeping the athlete’s jaw in the correct position.
Photos courtesy of GuardLab
GuardLab claims to serve 45 different sports. The traditional market for mouthguards is only six or seven.
Butler never planned to disrupt the mouthguard industry. He found his way into the startup world after years of leading technology strategy at a law firm that specialized in intellectual property. He was approached by two leading sports dentists (who would go on to become GuardLab’s co-founders) and saw potential after seeing their earlier mouthguard prototypes, countless testimonials from professional athletes, and the neuromuscular research.
The big problem at first was cost. Producing custom mouthguards was expensive. By using the latest 3D-technology they accelerated manufacturing times, reduced human error, and were able to make them more affordable.
Early testing was critical to the research and development of the product. They went through hundreds of designs, prototypes, and tests, getting input from athletes on how it felt to be punched or have their neck twisted while wearing a guard. Many professional athletes have become brand ambassadors, including José Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The process has not been without its stressful moments. While he laughs about it now, Butler remembers an intern tripping over the cord of their $50,000 intraoral 3D scanner, knocking it off the table, and smashing it to pieces. They’d only scanned one customer at the football event where they’d set to launch their product. “I actually kind of had a pseudo meltdown at our first event,” says Butler. Now in its second year, GuardLab is quickly expanding and currently available in three countries.