“Pretty much everyone would like to have a nice smile,” says Dr Aalok Y Shukla, co-founder of Straight Teeth Direct. “But the frictions involved – how do I get it? What are my options? How much does it cost? How often do I need to see my dentist? – are quite high.” So high, in fact, that Straight Teeth Direct is taking a radically different approach to capturing market share, including adopting artificial intelligence (AI), digital marketing and 3D printing to create an online orthodontics platform that is selling into 36 countries and growing at 15% a month.

The technology may be novel, but at its heart Shukla’s service speaks to very common customer needs: cost, convenience, comfort and even effectiveness over traditional orthodontics. Straight Teeth Direct, which employs more than 20 staff across Europe, allows individuals to upload pictures of their teeth to its platform: these are professionally evaluated by qualified dentists, and customers can then pay around £40 for a home-impression kit to be delivered. The impressions are sent back and used to create a 3D simulation of the client’s new smile, along with a proposed treatment plan – again, designed by a professional dentist.

Customers who wish to proceed with treatment then pay around £1,300 for a full teeth-straightening kit that contains 3D-printed transparent aligners, with further aligners dispatched at later stages of the procedure.

Tapping demand

Shukla originally set up a dental clinic in Putney, south-west London, in 2009, with the help of the bank’s specialist healthcare division, and noticed that his most popular services were good-value teeth-straightening, whitening and bonding.

“So in 2012, we created a brand called I Love Straight Teeth: this focused more on digitisation with digital education and marketing,” he explains. “The goal was to help people understand the different cosmetic orthodontic options and how they could afford them. We also implemented an online booking system and an online consultation system as a way to make the process easier for busy people.”

Even at this early stage, the service was incredibly popular, Shukla says. “People were coming from all over the UK and even travelling over from Paris – meanwhile, hundreds of people every day were filling out our online questionnaire. So I thought about how we could help more people without opening up more clinics.”

At this point, Babylon Health, the online medical consultation service, was taking off, smartphones were becoming more popular and the cost of 3D printing was coming down. “This led me to think about the possibility of remote treatment and consultations, and in 2014 we started looking seriously at how we could build on the systems we’d made before,” explains Shukla. “We were already doing virtual consultations, so we thought, how could we make this even more comprehensive, and how could we produce aligners that were easy and comfortable to wear?”

Shukla identified a new approach to making the teeth move when being straightened. “Normally you have to file between the teeth, but if you can upright the teeth, you have a wider smile and the teeth are straight but you don’t need to harm the tooth.

“We also redesigned the aligners to work almost autonomously. So in 2016 we did a soft launch and we were shocked at how many enquiries we had – not just from the UK but also from the US and even Japan.

There are so many different types of technology here and so many problems to be solved, from trying to develop an AI system or scale 3D printing to working out how to onboard and train dentists in a different way. I think they’ll occupy our time for the next five years, if not longer

Dr Aalok Shukla
Founder, Straight Teeth Direct

“In Japan, for example, it costs around $8,000 [£6,200] to have your teeth straightened, and also people work longer hours so they’re not able to visit their dentist that often.”

The remote dentists working on the Straight Teeth Direct platform also operate independently in five countries around the world. “They tend to be less busy in the afternoon, so they can use this free time to work for us. And patients are really happy that they can ask a question and get a proper answer almost instantly.”

Keys to success

The strength of the relationship between the company and its customers has been one of the keys to Straight Teeth Direct’s success, Shukla says. “A lot of our digital marketing is organic: we get about 70% of our customers from people who search for solutions online. We also have a YouTube channel, StraightTeethTV, hosted by Lucie Marchelot-Shukla, my co-founder, which explains more about the process and the system we offer.

“But testimonials from happy customers are 100% the key to increasing trust levels. Also, when people can get a detailed answer to a question quite quickly, that builds trust, too.”

Straight Teeth Direct has recently joined Founders Factory, the London-based business accelerator set up by Lastminute.com’s Brent Hoberman and Henry Lane Fox, to explore how AI and machine learning can improve the accuracy and the speed with which people can be assessed.

This will be crucial as the business scales up and tries to build market share in the years ahead, Shukla says. “Because it’s a bespoke product, any small errors early on can be compounded later on. So this is all about making sure we have robust attention to detail as the system grows.”

Founders Factory also offers the opportunity to receive guidance from experts outside the business. “When you are trying to do something new, many people tell you why something can’t happen, so it is really about knowing who to talk to,” says Shukla. “We have also moved from the bank’s healthcare division to technology, media and telecoms, headed by Neil Bellamy, and that has been invaluable in helping us get the right support to grow.

“For example, we sorted out global indemnity and malpractice insurance for the dentists we work with – that was very complex and took a year, almost. But it happened because we were able to talk to the right company, which had also done innovative policies in other areas.”

The aspect of setting up Straight Teeth Direct that Shukla has enjoyed the most is being “constantly challenged”.

“There are so many different types of technology here and so many problems to be solved, from trying to develop an AI system or scale 3D printing to working out how to onboard and train dentists in a different way.

“There are a lot of interesting things there: I think they’ll occupy our time for the next five years, if not longer.”

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