Toothpic is the dental app that gives people plenty to smile about

2 Jul 2018

Mark Moore, CEO and co-founder of Toothpic. Image: Toothpic

Our Start-up of the Week is Toothpic, a Dublin and New York-based start-up that has created an app enabling consumers to access dental care on demand.

“Toothpic is revolutionising the way dental care is delivered,” explained Toothpic co-founder and CEO Mark Moore.

“By connecting you with a dentist when you need it who can provide a check-up from just a few photos on your smartphone, we make sure you get the advice and care you need, when you need it.”

‘We’re influencing care delivery in a $50bn market ripe for disruption, which is very exciting’

The Toothpic app was founded in 2015 and uses disruptive technology to increase a consumer’s access to dental care.

The user can have a consultation with a certified dentist in their area while state-of-the-art technology allows the consumer to share focused imagery of the affected area so that the problem can be precisely diagnosed.

The app is available throughout North America and having also received users from 70 countries, Toothpic now has plans to introduce the app to Europe in early 2019.

Based in Dublin and New York, Toothpic employs 15 full-time staff – a mix of engineers, designers, marketers, salespeople, customer service reps and operations specialists.

“Toothpic users get tips on home care, recommendations for good dentists in their area and a cost estimate for any treatments they need – all within the app.

“We’ve partnered with leading dental insurers and oral care companies to deliver consumer-focused dental care for everyone, and the response has been fantastic.”

The market

Moore said Toothpic provides a valuable service for anyone who wants to maintain great oral health without unnecessary dental visits.

“Our first market has been the US. There, we are focused on consumers with dental insurance, private and public, that may not be using their coverage to their maximum benefit.

“There are over 150m insured Americans. With average dental plans costing about $350 per person, we’re influencing care delivery in a $50bn market ripe for disruption, which is very exciting.

“We have plans to launch in certain European countries in 2019 which opens up additional challenges, markets and opportunities, too.

The founders

Limerick native Moore holds a bachelor’s degree in nanoscience (physics and chemistry) from Trinity College Dublin, having graduated  in 2010.

“My speciality was in novel materials for solar cells using nanowires. I’ve always had a natural love for tech and previously established a real-time deals start-up with Jack Berrill, now co-founder of Toothpic.”

Known as MyTipOff, the company built mobile apps for local businesses in Dublin so they could offer deals on food and drink to customers nearby.

“This experience allowed Jack and I to learn the process of mobile app development and how to kick-start two-sided marketplaces.

“Alongside my interest in tech, I suppose you could say I’m a natural entrepreneur. I’ve actually been in business since I was eight when I sold doorstops at the Saturday Milk Market in Limerick city. I gathered offcut wood at my uncle’s farm and paid my classmates 20p per hour to hand-paint them. In just one year, I’d actually made enough to buy a car but, alas, I was 10 years too young to get a licence.”

The technology has teeth

Moore points out that when you take a picture on your phone and upload it on Facebook or send it on WhatsApp, much of the image quality is lost because these systems optimise your picture to be smaller and lighter.

“Our technology does the opposite. After a user answers the in-app questions about the dental concern he or she has, they are guided by our app to capture pictures, which we upload to our server in full quality.

“Once the images are uploaded, they are sent to Toothpic dentists in the same area as the user. When the first, next available dentist logs in, the case will be visible for them to assess. The dentist can zoom in on the images to obtain almost as much information as a traditional, in-office visual assessment.

“As the images are being reviewed, the dentist can overlay annotations, highlighting areas for the user’s attention with an explanation on the issue, personalised information, advice for home care and professional care, if necessary.

“All of the images or patient information is captured and stored securely in compliance with best practice and US healthcare laws.”

The bite stuff

Moore pointed out that most dental problems are preventable.

“Our goal is to develop and distribute a service that is so intuitive for consumers to use and so effective at catching and preventing dental problems that good dental care becomes as easy as ordering an Uber.

“That way, dental costs will come down and people who want to maintain a healthy smile can do so easily and efficiently.

“At home, we all know someone who is afraid of the dentist, either the pain, the cost or the embarrassment – that could even be some of us.

“Our goal is to provide a consumer-centric way for those people to understand their dental needs and get and stay healthy using the technology that we’re all now so comfortable with.

“We measure this goal in consults delivered, cavities prevented and patients helped.

“An exciting internal goal we have is to deliver the first dental check-up from space.”

Smile when you’re winning

Moore recalls that when Toothpic started out in Ireland, the company was too early for the market.

“Dentists weren’t ready for the change and insurance companies were just coming to terms with telemedicine. Luckily, consumers have continued to demand better ways to manage their health and we’ve now partnered with some of the most innovative insurers and oral health companies in the US.

“We’ve deployed at a number of sites and have some national US deployments planned for later this year with these partners who collectively cover more than 40m dental members, so it will be a busy period as we grow with these populations.

“We’re also lucky to have some great investors on board already, including PCH CEO Liam Casey; Enterprise Ireland; the CEO of blockchain firm Ripple, Brad Garlinghouse; and some folks from the oral health sector.

“We’re currently negotiating a new financing round to accelerate our growth with our insurance partners.”

Aches and breaks

Moore said that Toothpic encountered all the usual start-up problems, but also the satisfaction of seeing something grow from a seed of an idea to a very real company.

“When I randomly noticed a gap developing in my lower gum and sent a picture from my phone to my dad Gus, a dentist in Limerick, and got my diagnosis back in a few minutes, little did I think we would be the market leader in consumer dental technology in the US a few years later.

“Since then, we had market challenges – trying to sell a dental innovation in Ireland was, in retrospect, not the best decision. We were constantly trying to convince conservative individuals of the need that we saw when progressive customers were calling us from the US. I think we were just too early for Ireland.

“We had product challenges when our technology was pushing the hardware of some iPhones to their limit. Our CTO was consulting with engineers at Apple in California on his method of handling full-size images on the limited RAM of the 4S.

“We still have technology challenges today as we work through ways of leveraging machine learning to improve our photo taking and image recognition workflows, and make our dentists more efficient.

“Getting a network of dentists robust enough to handle major national contracts covering all 50 US states was a major challenge. This effort was led by a friend of mine from my physics class – Cathal Horan – who ended up building us the largest network of ‘teledentists’ globally, now with over 400 dental licences covering all 50 US states.

“Lastly, getting a team of smart, sound and interesting people together to bring Toothpic to the market has been a challenge but an exciting one. Great people have tons of options of where to work and what to work on, so we’re delighted to be able to attract some of the best talent in Dublin for our engineering, product and business teams.”

Growing pains

Moore said that the start-up scene in Ireland is in good nick.

“I’ve been based in Dublin, San Francisco and New York and from what I’ve seen, Dublin has really great people, as good as anywhere else. We may not always be as confident but the raw talent is certainly here.

“In saying that, the Irish market is rarely the target for start-ups with high growth ambitions and so, many like ourselves end up selling abroad in larger markets.

“Dublin and Ireland have some helpful networks of founders, operators and investors but can sometimes suffer from ‘group think’ and often, because so many people are static, there can be little crossover in these groups. In cities like San Francisco and New York where there is more transience, groups tend to be more fluid, open, diverse and evolving. I met many of the best Irish founders while in the US and bump into as many in San Francisco as I do in Dublin.

“For the reasons above, I think Dublin and other parts of Ireland can be great places as part of a start-up strategy, but probably not the only base for companies with global ambitions.

“One facet of the Irish start-up scene I think that gives it an edge is the fantastic quality of life available to those who want to work hard and play hard.

“The Dublin and Wicklow mountains are less than 40 minutes away from the city centre, and getting out west to surf or chill in a country pub is a great relief from the tech world, at least for me.

“These are all possible in other start-up ‘hubs’ but there’s less of a culture of it and many people end up ‘always hustling’, which I’m not sure is actually a more efficient way of building a lasting business.”

Lose the baby teeth

Moore’s advice to other tech self-starters in Europe? “Sell it before you have built your product. To borrow from Paul Graham: ‘Make something people want.’

“Make some assumptions about what creates value, and stay laser-focused on those things. Don’t be afraid to say no to people, features, speculative meetings if there is not a strong reason to do it. Many of these can be distractions from what will truly add value.”

He concluded: “And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nobody has all the answers and most people are willing to share what they do know, especially other founders and operators who have been through similar challenges before.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years