When 3D printing technology started to become more ubiquitous around the world, many claimed that there would come a day when every household would own a 3D printer. While such a reality has yet to materialise, 3D printing technology has disrupted several industries, including healthcare.
Coupled with the rise in social media and a healthy dose in vanity, 3D printing technology has become a key component of achieving the perfect smile through clear aligners, an industry that is set to be worth $32 billion by 2030. About 60-70 per cent of the global population want and could benefit from clear dental aligners.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), malocclusion of teeth, or teeth misalignment, is the third most prevalent dental disease after dental caries and periodontal disease. Traditionally, metal braces were used to treat patients with mild to moderate malocclusion, but as the cost of 3D printing technology has declined, 3D printed plastic aligners have become the more popular choice to straighten teeth.
Companies like US-based Align Technology, the company behind Invisalign, adopted a direct-to-consumer (D2C) approach, making use of social media to target consumers. By 2020, Invisalign’s aligners were used by 10.9 million people and worldwide Invisalign shipments were about 413,700 cases. To date, over five million teenagers have started orthodontic treatment with Invisalign clear aligners.
In the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), the orthodontic opportunity is ripe for the taking, with three regionally-born startups emerging over the past few years, namely Smileneo, Basma and Eon Dental. Using a similar business model to Invisalign, these startups use 3D printing technology, advertise on social media to sell directly to consumers online and offer apps to monitor the progress of their treatment.
"As an orthodontist, I saw the industry is already being transformed. So I started to think, what if 90 per cent of my job could be automated and replaced by technology? What if we minimise the number of visits to clinics and eliminate part of the cost and pass those savings to the consumer. This had me get started on founding Basma," says Cherif Massoud, CEO and co-founder of Basma.
"I was very frustrated at the thought that clear aligners are an extremely good solution, but it can only be offered to the rich because the cost of the treatment is really high. So our mission was to make it more affordable from the beginning onwards. When we looked around us, and we saw how others were doing it, so there was the regular dental clinic that you can go to that has a pretty expensive treatment, and is not using the power of technology. There is no CRM, there is no integration with the buy now pay later companies and no proper customer support. We saw a lot of gaps," he adds.
Basma was initially founded in Lebanon before moving its headquarters to the UK, but the startup has its operations team based in the UAE, focusing primarily on the GCC region. It handles consultations, the scanning and treatments as well as produces clear aligners in-house while providing an end-to-end digital solution for payments. Last year, Basma raised a $3 million Series A round in order to ramp up its operations in the GCC and grow its network of clinics.
UAE-based Smileneo came out of stealth mode last year after securing $2 million in a Seed round and securing a licence from the Dubai Health Authority for its teledentistry platform.
“Based on our research, 85 per cent of people in the region could benefit from orthodontic treatments, but less than 1 per cent receive it each year,” said Jonathan Doerr, founder and CEO of Smileneo in a statement. “Many of them don’t have access to quality orthodontic care that fits their budget and busy lifestyles. We’re digitising orthodontics to modernise and improve patient experiences while enhancing convenience and affordability.”
The best funded of these startups is Jordan’s Eon Dental, which managed to secure a $26 million Series B round. For Eon, the pandemic was a key accelerant of their business as clear aligners proved to be the best suited treatment as they do not require frequent visits to clinics or dentists.
"The overall narrative around clear aligners is changing dramatically, especially post Covid-19,” says Qais Sabri, CEO and co-founder of Eon. “There has been a serious change in terms of adoption, market record, market potential and willingness to accept the fact that clear aligners is becoming a thing. The segment blew up along the lines of self care and self improvement, because people were spending a lot of time home on Zoom calls, focusing on improving the health and appearance of their smiles."
Besides Jordan, Eon also operates in Europe, Asia, and North America, which dominates the global dental 3D printing sector.
Cultivating a global mindset has enabled the startup to tap into a global talent pool and benchmark its product with international competitors, Sabri argues.
"Being an emerging business based out of an emerging market has not given us the vantage point or access to talent and now being a global business allows us to become a more decentralised organisation and that means more power and more resilience," he adds.
The market in the region presents tremendous opportunities for growth for all three startups. That said, they are all actively looking to target other markets where the purchasing power is higher and the size of the dental tech market is bigger.
Echoing similar sentiment, Massoud says that Basma has robust plans to further scale its business in Europe.
"It is a growing segment in the market; it's about $150 billion globally. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, it is a market worth around $4.1 billion. In the next five years, we want to have half our revenue from the Middle East and the other half from Europe. Of all the markets we operate in, Saudi Arabia is our biggest target market," he concludes.