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All Smiles

January 1, 2010 | 

Source: Mike Savada, Alberta Venture

Cristian Scurtescu has never found anything he couldn’t fix.

When he was 13, growing up in a small city outside Bucharest, Romania, the Soviet-made motorcycle his dad bought for him broke down, and he couldn’t get parts. So he made some, and overhauled the machine to run better than new. By the time he was 15, Scurtescu was repairing everything in his family’s apartment, including the heating and electrical system. He made his first car, a beater Renault, into a vehicle that ran like a BMW and even had heated seats.

But he also excelled at the theory taught in school and university. In the final year of his undergraduate degree in Bucharest, he graduated with a 100% average. Still, theory only served as the backdrop to realizing his future ambitions. Between a professor of microelectronics who kept him involved in practical projects and a full-time job with O2Micro, a multinational electronics firm (the two combined making for 14-hour days, with weekends reserved for writing research papers), he managed to stay fully engaged with hands-on applications. “If I look back, probably it was hard,” says Scurtescu. “But I had fun.”

Coming to Canada roughly five years ago to expand his horizons, he translated those experiences into eventually earning a master of science in electrical engineering at the University of Alberta. It was here that his innate desire to fix stuff pushed him to take research out of the ivory tower and into the real world of practical applications. As a result, Scurtescu has made the leap from academia to business. With his award-winning startup company, SmileSonica Inc., this 30-year-old has embarked on commercializing a groundbreaking product that could soon do a lot of fixing – of teeth.

As he was wrapping up his master’s, Scurtescu was invited to join a research team from the departments of electrical engineering and dentistry that was focused on the use of ultrasound to stimulate regeneration of damaged and shortened tooth roots. Besides its applications in medical imaging and prenatal care, ultrasound is used to help repair damaged muscles and bones, but in dentistry this was the first time it would be applied to anything other than cleaning teeth. As Scurtescu finished his degree, he started working with engineers on developing a prototype of a compact commercial unit, and he became the liaison between the dentists and the engineers.

He has been well aware that a lot of research stays in the lab and never sees the light of day. But with entrepreneurial instincts honed by his stint with O2Micro back in Bucharest, Scurtescu was determined not to let this happen. “In early 2008 I realized that the project had much more potential than just a research project. This can be a commercial product, but… I have to build a business and adapt to commercial reality,” he recalls thinking. “I have to take it to the next phase.” In other words, he’d have to develop it into something everyone could use. The U of A was willing to license the technology, and he started SmileSonica.

So far the prototype (still being refined) consists of a controller resembling a slightly oversized iPod, which is wired to a tooth mould with embedded sensors. When it operates, the device directs a dose of ultrasound waves to the desired part of the mouth. A dentist or orthodontist would program the device, but the patient would be able to take it home and operate it, wearing it for 20 minutes a day to repair roots.

Tarek El-Bialy, associate professor at the U of A’s department of dentistry, has documented regrowth in the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics. El-Bialy, also a practising orthodontist, says it was an accidental discovery made through researching the effects of ultrasound on the jawbones of rabbits. But in some human patients, root damage is an unintended consequence of wearing braces. When braces move teeth, that encourages the generation of new bone cells, but these new bone cells start eating away at teeth roots, El Bialy says.

By improving root health through ultrasound therapy while patients are receiving orthodontic treatment, the risk of tooth loosening or loss can be prevented, he says. This is non-invasive and could prevent the need for a root canal or even an implant.

In short, the use of ultrasound could have a significant effect on the practice of orthodontics, he says. And from a marketing perspective, it could be used by thousands of orthodontists, and there is a potential for future dentistry applications such as treatment of bone loss or root fractures.

The original research group had hoped for a device in a much smaller format than the one Scurtescu is currently working on in his lab at the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), located on the university’s main campus. Despite that goal’s being a few years away, Scurtescu wants to get the device on the market as soon as possible. Further refinements will come later. To be successful, a company like his can’t focus solely on the technology, he says. Rather, it must find a need and then direct all its efforts towards meeting that need if it hopes to bring a product to market.

That’s the approach he has taken to commercializing his ultrasonic device. “I simplified it and filtered it through my commercial experience to something that can be done quickly and at low risk,” Scurtescu says.

So far his business acumen has attracted plenty of attention. In 2008, his fledgling company received a $75,000 startup grant from the MicroSystems Technology Research Initiative, a program funded by both the federal and provincial governments and which is based at the U of A’s faculty of engineering. In April 2009, SmileSonica finished in the top three of more than 100 companies competing in Tec Edmonton’s VenturePrize Business Plan Competition, which brought the company a prize package worth $42,000, split between cash, a promotional video, in-kind services and exposure to the wider business community.

Obviously the panel liked Scurtescu’s business plan, which includes having the product developed, tested, approved and on the market by 2012. And, no doubt, they liked his drive and resourcefulness. He has read thousands of pages of reports on market research and he has made contacts with many dentists and spoken with patients. And besides immersing himself in the tech startup community in NINT’s Innovation Centre – the facility’s commercial office and laboratory space – he’s established an advisory board for SmileSonica to complement the current team that includes him, a young research engineer, and an accountant as chief financial officer.

“I’m a young guy,” he says. “I can learn anything but I need a mentor.”

With support from the business and scientific communities, the horizon Scurtescu set out to broaden by leaving Romania now stretches as wide as his adopted prairie landscape. But he knows he’s not through with the trials of commercialization. He has a plan but, in a province many say is just beginning to diversify into the high-tech sector, he still has many challenges to meet until his product is ready for market.

Incidentally, all of this developing of his business acumen has done nothing to quell his urge to fix vehicles, and a garage full of parts awaits him at home – if and when he finds the time.

“The problem is that I have less and less time to do these things. If only I could find a way to make the day longer.”

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