In the United States, fewer than 50 percent of beneficiaries receive dental care in any given year, Zaydenman, CareQuest’s VP of Innovation, said. But in many communities, he said, that figure is even lower.
“We see huge disparities by race, by where people live, by which language they speak, by their socioeconomic level, by their sexual orientation, in their oral health status, in their ability to get into oral health providers, and in their ability to get their issues resolved definitively,” Zaydenman said.
And an industry hyperfocused on one part of health doesn’t help patient outcomes, he added.
“There are systemic barriers for collaboration between medicine and dentistry. Professionally, they’re siloed; their data is siloed; their payment systems are siloed; the… vendors and suppliers, they’re all siloed,” Zaydenman said.
In response, CareQuest Innovation Partners, a for-profit organization focused on improving oral health outcomes and access, partnered with MATTER, an organization focused on healthcare incubation and innovation, to create the SMILE Health accelerator.
Our global call-to-action was around how we can improve access, equity, and integration of care to improve overall health outcomes.
Mission Behind the Accelerator
SMILE, an acronym for “Simple, Minimally Invasive, Integrated, Low-Barrier, and Equitable,” strives to ensure its practices and outputs meet each of those goals.
“Our global call to action was around how we can improve access, equity, and integration of care to improve overall health outcomes,” Zaydenman said.
Without partnering with an organization backing that kind of mission, startups have a much lower chance of succeeding — mostly because they lack the funding to make their visions and ideas a reality in a market.
“When someone is looking to increase access, improve equity, increase integration, oftentimes, these are not the areas that get funded,” Zaydenman said. “[As a result], these companies are usually not at the growth stage. They actually need that early capital; they need access to early partners, validations, and first customers. That’s why we created this program.”
The first-of-its-kind accelerator took the premise of existing oral health accelerators one step further.
“There are other accelerators in the industry, but there are very few that are focused specifically on oral health. None — other than [SMILE Health] — have focused on the public health aspects of [the industry],” Zaydenman said.
This Year’s Cohort
When Zaydenman and his team began the process of selecting the first SMILE Health cohort, they had over 100 startups to choose from. They eventually narrowed it down to a cohort of five companies.
This year’s cohort includes the following companies:
Wide Awake VR, which provides patients a safe option to stay awake without anesthesia during certain dental procedures;
OrisDX, a saliva test that can help identify oral cancer early on;
OraQ, software that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide customizable patient care;
Novel White Plastic Preformed Crown, which allows a color-matched, plastic crown to be used for minimally invasive procedures in children; and
SleepArchitects, a technology that helps dentists improve care for patients with sleep apnea.
If we’re going to talk about improving equity and integration, then we have to actually look at who is coming into the cohort, right?
Four of the five companies have female leadership, and one of the five companies came from a non-dental industry. Three of the companies are based in the United States, and the other two are based elsewhere, in Canada and New Zealand.
Zaydenman said having diversity among leaders, industries, and companies helps to ensure the accelerator is meeting its mission.
“If we’re going to talk about improving equity and integration, then we have to actually look at who is coming into the cohort, right?” he said.
Moving Through the Accelerator Program
This year’s SMILE Health cohort began working with the accelerator program on May 16.
For the past several months since then, the five companies have been working to validate their ideas, offerings, and strategies. They have done so by working with corporate partners of the program, learning from the accelerator’s curriculum, and completing a variety of data analyses and validation studies.
So, what’s next for these entrepreneurs?
SMILE Health will be hosting its inaugural Demo Day on September 13, where partners, investors, the cohort, and members of the broader Boston community will meet, in person at the Boston Museum of Science, and virtually, to showcase the startups’ work throughout the accelerator program.
Zaydenman said the hope is that several of the startups will receive investments at the end of the accelerator program.
“We selected companies that we think are promising, and now we’re helping to validate them, and then showcase them to the world, and hopefully, get them access to capital and customers and partners, so they could come to market at scale,” he said.
Those investments could come from SMILE Health’s scale partners, a variety of venture capitalists who may be looking to invest in the oral healthcare space. Partnerships could come from the accelerator’s impact partners, which are corporations that need solutions like the ones the startups can offer.
SMILE Health’s impact partners, typically large corporates, include Colgate, Cigna, and DentaQuest, among others.
What Makes a Startup Attractive to SMILE Health’s Partners?
For scale partners and VCs, Zaydenman said, the startups need to align with their investment thesis and startups need to have strong, viable business models to be considered attractive to a VC.
I think each partner is appreciative of the need and the mandate for change, but they’re also looking at it through a business lens.
For impact partners, on the other hand, a startup has to be aligned with a corporation’s mission and strategy. Beyond that, though, startups need to be able to solve a problem a corporate partner can see and validate in their current market, he said.
“For the impact partners, they’re looking for those solutions that can help to change the paradigm and bridge the gap,” Zaydenman said. “I think each partner is appreciative of the need and the mandate for change, but they’re also looking at it through a business lens. … [They’re asking], ‘Is this going to help to improve my company’s performance and drive value downstream to my customers?'”