Irvine Startup InBrace Puts New Kind of Braces Behind Teeth
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
John Pham is what some might call a noodler.
He noodled in aerospace. He noodled a startup or two. He even noodled at school, dropping out and then returning to earn degrees in engineering, dental surgery, and craniofacial biology. Ultimately, he landed the title of DDS or doctor of dental surgery, something to make his mama proud.
“I’ll be the doctor you always wanted,” Pham recalls telling her.
Pham’s noodling didn’t stop with his last degree. Instead, he started thinking about ways to reshape the traditional world of orthodonture using old technology with a modern twist.
He and business partner Hongsheng Tong, a fellow dental surgeon and professor at USC, are joining the hugely profitable race to straighten Americans’ teeth.
Pham says his team has created “a whole new category of braces.”
Their company, Irvine-based InBrace, uses metal and brackets like many before them. Only their metal is the 21st-century kind — programmed with a memory to straighten teeth — from behind.
Lingual (tongue-side) braces are not new, but InBrace has streamlined the process by borrowing from the aerospace industry, something Pham has experience with. The concept uses a thin wire that zigzags along the back of the teeth, gradually shifting the pearly whites from crooked to straight with almost no intervention.
In today’s image-conscious society, the idea of low-maintenance braces few people will ever actually see is catching the attention of investors. Venture capitalists have invested $175 million with InBrace, including a $102 million Series D round that closed in early September. Investors included San Francisco-based Farallon Capital Management and Marshall Wace in London.
While InBrace might have a novel application, it joins a crowded field of cosmetic dentistry.
Demand for teeth aligners has soared as millions of Americans stare at their crooked teeth in virtual meetings or selfies posted on social media. The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry estimates $2.75 billion is spent every year on cosmetic dentistry in the U.S. The orthodontic industry worldwide is projected to grow to $8 billion by 2026 from $2.3 billion this year, according to a July report from ResearchAndMarkets.com.
The trend is fueling industry deals and boosting shares on Wall Street. Santa Monica-based Byte, a direct-to-consumer aligner company, went from startup to dental darling in just two years, bought in January for $1 billion by Dentsply Sirona Inc. in York, Pa. Align Technology, the company behind Invisalign, has seen its shares rise 130% in a year as the pandemic altered dental habits. Meanwhile, competition looms from Smile Direct Club and others.
We spoke with Pham about his growing company via Zoom from the company’s headquarters in Irvine’s University Center. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The InBrace concept began in early 2012-2014, helping children suffering from cleft palate and lip disorders. Tell us how the idea evolved.
A: I was doing a rotation through Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which has one of the world’s elite cleft care centers. The patients are usually kids from economically challenged families, coming from miles and miles away for months of treatment. As an engineer at heart, I asked myself, ‘Is there a way to use the latest advancements so these kids don’t have to come every month, deal with the pain month after month? Is there a way so they don’t have to look worse before they look better?’
Pham and Tong’s budding lingual braces concept was first called ComfortCorrect. It was born in 2012 in a tech incubator at USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. It would go on to win the 2014 Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, the so-called “Academy Awards” of Viterbi startups.
Q: Tell us about this memory wire.
A: We use this kind of wire in aerospace. We can program our Smartwire so that it does the function it needs to do. In a satellite, for example, its shape can last for eons. This type of memory shape also has been used in heart stents but never in orthodontics.
Q: How does it work?
A: The orthodontist takes a digital scan of the patient’s teeth, uploads that to our software, and our technology and big data find the optimum forces for each tooth.
Pham shares a time-lapse video of a patient’s mouth being reshaped with the proprietary Smartwire used by InBrace. The teeth, which are separated by large gaps, are seen slowly moving toward each other into the familiar half-arch shape. The Smartwire weaves up and down behind the teeth, and the brackets appear to lay almost flat on the teeth. Pham shows a photo of a Smartwire bracket, which shows it’s roughly the same size as Abe Lincoln’s ear — on the U.S. penny.
Q: Has the pandemic fueled interest in InBrace?
A: We’re tapping into the demand from the beauty-health consumer. There’s a lot of interest in aesthetics, cosmetics. And with our product, there are really no lifestyle changes. The point is that you can live your life without compromises. You make a lot of compromises with aligners.
Pham notes that aligners have to be worn 24 hours a day, removed only for meals and tooth brushing. The aligners are also replaced frequently to adjust the fit as the teeth shift.
Q: How long does it take for InBrace’s Smartwire to correct crooked teeth?
A: Most adult adjustments take 12 months while regular braces might take 36.
Pham says InBrace’s partners, all board-certified orthodontists, will work to fix what the customer needs to be tweaked: a gap, an underbite or an overbite.
Q: Does it hurt like traditional braces?
A: The Smartwire uses what we call “gentle force technology.” The slow adjustments mean little to no pain. Imagine stretching your skin. It hurts if you do it quickly, but if you do it slowly, there’s no pain.
Q: The braces, at $4,000 to $7,000, seem expensive.
A: Traditional lingual braces can run up to $12,000, Pham says. “You’re getting a Ferrari at the same price as a Camry,” he says. He also notes that many dental insurance plans will cover part of the costs.
Q: Is InBrace just for adults?
A: We have clients as young as 8 and as old as 80.
Q: How big is the market for InBrace?
A: There are 331 million people in the U.S. and three out of four of them need teeth straightening. Only 6 million are opting for braces annually. Why? Because nothing fits their lifestyle. We want to bring something fundamentally different to the market. We want to transform smiles and perspectives.
More about John Pham
He grew up in East LA before going to UCLA and USC. He was “patient zero” for InBrace.
Favorite pandemic hobby? Spending time with my family. I think that is one blessing we have all gotten out of this past year, is learning to spend quality time with those we love.
Best advice for budding entrepreneurs: Everything is the way it is because someone changed the way it was.
Biggest hurdle he’s overcome: Learning to trust myself. Trust the vision you have for the world and don’t worry about all of the outside noise. Block it out and don’t be afraid to be different. Sometimes “different” is better than “better.”
Favorite food: Hands down, fried chicken and ramen
What he loves about Southern California: There is an optimism that California exudes that can’t be beat. I also love the diversity and innovation you can find here. In SoCal, there is this can-do attitude, where anything is possible. That mentality is hard to find in many places.
Founded in 2012
Employees: InBrace’s leadership declined to provide details regarding its employee count and how many orthodontist partners it has. A review of its website showed 68 orthodontists were available throughout Southern California.
Company goals: We intend to work hand in hand with our orthodontic providers to bring this new category of teeth straightening to the masses.
Category: Innovation, Business News, Irvine News