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Brush, floss, and bathe your teeth in blue light? PhotOral is out raising money for a new oral hygiene device

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 6, 2012 10:28 AM

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I don't know about you, but my dental care regimen goes something like this: thirty seconds with the anti-plaque rinse, brushing with my Sonicare electric toothbrush, and flossing.

The founders of a Lexington start-up, PhotOral, suggest adding one more step, in the morning and at night: sixty seconds chomping on a white mouthguard embedded with blue LEDs. The company is out raising $1 million to get the device ready for production, and founders Nikos Soukos and Stamatis Astra (pictured at right) invited me to their offices last week to see their just-finished working prototype.

Soukos, who directs the Applied Photomolecular Research Laboratory at the Forsyth Institute in Cambridge, explained to me that nothing I do in my daily routine deals with the bacteria that live underneath my gums. "There are 800 different bacteria in your dental plaque," Soukos told me. "It's a jungle in there. Some microbes are heavily involved in the development of periodontal disease." Others may cause halitosis.

photoral5.jpgLuckily, a huge percentage of those bad microbes are sensitive to light at a particular wavelength. And Soukos' lab at the Forsyth Institute — it's a non-profit Cambridge research group exclusively focused on oral health — has been studying the way light affects those microbes for a decade now. "We found that your teeth act like a mirror, delivering the light into the dental pocket," Soukos says, where it can zap those nasty bacteria. Bite down on the PhotOral device, and its blue lights turn on for sixty seconds. It beeps to let you know when the cycle is over.

They're hoping to sell the PhotOral device directly to consumers, and through dentists, for about $60. "One scenario we'd love is that when you finish getting your teeth cleaned, the hygienist would give you one to use for sixty seconds, and explain what it is doing," says Astra, the company's chief executive. A slightly more expensive version of the device might be marketed to maintain your teeth's whiteness after a whitening treatment, he says.

Astra is out in San Francisco this week, talking with investors and investment bankers. He says he hopes to have PhotOral's first product in the market in 12 to 18 months. The first million in funding will help the company conduct clinical trials to show the product is safe and effective at killing bacteria, and also to finalize the product's design. Astra estimates the company may need another $9 million or so to properly launch the device.

A big question, of course, is whether consumers will be willing to add another step to their morning-and-evening oral hygiene routines — and spend $60. Are preventing gum disease and perhaps neutralizing foul breath big enough motivators to help PhotOral take a bite out of the $10 billion oral care market in the U.S.?

(I mentioned the company briefly in this January column about capital efficient start-ups.)

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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