Dental care can be costly and hard to access, especially if you live in a rural community or a third-world country. In fact, the biggest barrier to dental care is cost. This is according to the American Dental Association, which says many rural areas lack access to dental professionals.
Other than the obvious aesthetic benefits of straighter teeth, orthodontics has legitimate health benefits. According to the American Association of Orthodontics, proper teeth alignment contributes to the development of a healthy bite. Properly aligned teeth are also easier to clean, which helps prevent plaque, bacteria buildup and cavities. Meanwhile, improperly aligned teeth can also wear down your enamel and contribute to teeth loss.
As it turns out, 65 percent of the population could benefit from orthodontic treatment, according to a study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. But in terms of those who get treatment, it’s more frequent in higher income groups.
The cost of braces and invisible aligners — those clear, mouthguard-like pieces of plastic — varies, but treatments can range from $4,685 to $6,500 for adolescents, and adult treatments can cost up to $7,135, according to a 2013 American Dental Association survey. Last year, the orthodontics market saw $11 billion in revenue, according to market research company IBISWorld. It’s also worth noting that a number of Invisalign-maker Align Technology’s patents around the planning phase of clear aligners expired last year.
It’s no surprise, then, that a handful of venture-backed startups are now vying for the opportunity to straighten and whiten your teeth. Similar to Uber and Lyft’s effects on the taxi industry, these orthodontics startups could potentially upend a hundred-year-plus-old industry and change how we access dental care.
Here come the startups
For those who can’t afford braces or Invisalign, startups like Uniform Teeth, Candid, SmileDirectClub and Orthly aim to not only reduce the cost of clear aligners, but also the number of visits to the orthodontist — with some even cutting out the in-person orthodontist visit altogether. The rationale behind many of the startups that have popped up over the years comes down to accessibility and cost.
Uniform Teeth, which launched the first week of this year, is one of a handful of technology-driven startups that have popped up in recent years to get inside your mouth. Uniform Teeth costs $3,500, and offers treatment that is most similar to the experience of seeing a traditional orthodontist in a traditional setting. Before any treatment begins, Uniform Teeth requires you to come into its office to meet with its licensed orthodontist to get X-rays, scans and a dental health exam.
What differentiates Uniform Teeth from the traditional orthodontics experience is that Uniform Teeth does not require ongoing in-person visits. Instead, after their first sessions, patients check in with their orthodontist via the mobile app every week. For the last visit, patients come in to ensure the treatment is going well and that no refinements are needed.
Uniform Teeth was co-founded by Dr. Kjeld Aamodt, a certified orthodontist, member of the American Association of Orthodontists and teaching professor at the University of California San Francisco. The startup’s intent is to make orthodontics more affordable and accessible.
“There are over 200 million Americans of all ages who need orthodontic treatment and less than 1% of the population receive care each year,” Uniform Teeth CEO Meghan Jewitt told TechCrunch. “This suggests a huge need for better, easier and more affordable orthodontic care.”
Another startup is Candid, which virtually connects patients with local orthodontists and then enables those orthodontists to prescribe direct-to-consumer aligners. Candid entered the market last September, with its 3D-printed aligners. Candid CEO Nick Greenfield described it to me as being for people who need mild-to-moderate orthodontic work. Candid costs $1,900 upfront or $88 per month over two years, while braces can cost up to $7,000 and Invisalign can cost up to $8,000.
“For us, it’s all about expanding access and improving affordability,” Greenfield told me. “What’s happening now is across health care, it’s 18 percent of GDP. It’s growing six times the speed of the economy and you’ve seen many health care costs rise by five to ten times over the last 15 to 20 years.”