This article appeared in the Edmonton Journal on November 15, 2016.
The perfect smile. Like the fitness buff’s dogged pursuit of rock-hard, six-pack abs, it has become a popular 21st-century obsession.
The number of teens and preteens undergoing orthodontic treatment has nearly doubled over the past 20 years. But they’re not the only ones wearing expensive braces these days.
Millions of adults spend billions of dollars each year trying to emulate the perfect smiles of Hollywood celebs like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway and George Clooney.
In fact, cosmetic dentistry now ranks as the largest non-surgical beauty industry on the planet, New York magazine reports, and adults comprise roughly a quarter of all orthodontic patients in North America.
The growing popularity of Invisalign aligners — a clear, retainer-type alternative to traditional metal braces — is also driving the pursuit of dental perfection.
But perfection takes time. It’s not unusual for patients to wear braces or retainers for a couple of years or more. That’s because the mechanical force that braces must exert to reposition teeth takes time to work. It’s a glacially slow process, as anyone who endured the ignominy of braces during their teen years can attest.
That’s where SmileSonica Inc. comes in. The small but fast-growing Edmonton-based startup has developed a clinically tested medical device — now approved and commercially available at clinics in 35 countries, including Canada — that shrinks the time required for braces to work by nearly one-third.
SmileSonica’s patented Aevo System — which basically looks like a mouthguard connected to a battery-powered, handheld electronic device — applies low-intensity, pulsed ultrasound to a patient’s dental tissue, thereby accelerating and monitoring the repositioning of teeth.
“We’re complementary to the patient’s existing treatment. We still require the force (that braces provide). What we’re providing is the low intensity pulse ultrasound,” said Darryl Lesiuk, SmileSonica’s vice-president, corporate development.
“Our device is like a hockey mouthpiece. It fits over the braces and over the teeth and it goes down to the gum line. You wear it for just 20 minutes a day — that’s it. So it can be when you’re doing homework or exercising. You have the flexibility to do it whenever it suits you.”
In essence, the Aevo System’s low intensity pulse ultrasound remodels or reshapes the bone that supports the teeth, and it does it at a faster rate than braces alone would.
“So we accelerate an existing process so it’s faster as well as safe,” says SmileSonica CEO Cristian Scurtescu, who founded the company in 2008, after moving to Canada from his native Romania to study electrical engineering at the University of Alberta. That’s where a research project led him into the orthodontic field.
“While I was writing my masters thesis my supervisor asked if I would be interested in joining a research project on a new type of technology to stimulate dental tissues,” he says. “It was a collaboration between electrical engineering, medical orthodontists and dentistry.”
Scurtescu’s prior work experience designing integrated circuits made him a key part of the team. Soon, the researchers were publishing papers on their innovative, ultrasound-based technology, and turning some heads in the scientific community.
“But I knew that wasn’t enough for me,” says Scurtescu. “Publishing a paper is great and it’s great to share information, but it has to be more than that for me. It has to be a product that helps millions of people, that anybody can use.”
So after working on prototypes for two years, Scurtescu quit his job as a U of A research engineer and formed SmileSonica. With financial support from family, friends, his own credit card and various provincial and federal funding agencies, he mapped out a business plan and set out to prove the technology works.
In 2009, SmileSonica was a finalist in the annual VenturePrize business plan competition, and it later won kudos from BioAlberta and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures. Then in 2012, it launched a clinical trial involving 32 subjects at five sites, including the U of A, the University of Toronto, the University of Manitoba, and two commercial orthodontic clinics.
The trial, which was completed in July 2015, showed an average 29 per cent increase in tooth movement, versus a control group, with no increase in adverse events or pain reported. Health Canada approved the Aevo System for sale in this country in September.
The product — manufactured at the company’s 20-person headquarters in the Edmonton Research Park under the watch of operations manager Pascal Bisson, a former auto assembly plant manager in Texas — is now commercially available in a dozen clinics in Europe and Australia as well as Canada.
The first unit was sold in Canada last month. The product’s retail price depends on a variety of factors, says Scurtescu, but in general it equates to roughly 20 to 25 per cent of the cost of braces.
Although product sales thus far are modest, he expects the company to break even within one or two years. On a long-term basis, he estimates potential sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Our message is that we’ve grown something here in Edmonton, Alberta. We’re global, we’re innovative, we’re diversifying and we’ve used the resources that are here. So we’ve come to one summit but we’ve got that next summit to climb still, so we’re not done by any means,” says Lesiuk.
Scurtescu echoes that vision. “This is the beginning. We’re just bringing the product to market. We worked for eight years to develop the technology, test it, and get regulatory approvals in the largest markets where this is needed. And now is when we start to roll it out,” he says.
“Patients don’t like wearing braces. They really want their braces off as soon as possible, and our device helps them reduce the time they have to wear them.”