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Build A Toothbrush, Change The World. Or Not

The MD Brush has an unusual grip that automatically angles the brush head at 45 degrees. (NPR)

Some people dream of climbing Mount Everest or riding a bicycle across the country. Mike Davidson's dream has been to create the perfect toothbrush, and now he thinks he's done it.

The saga of this brush tells a lot about the passion and persistence to take an idea and turn it into a product.

Shots first introduced you to Davidson in 2012. At the time, Davidson thought his toothbrush would be ready for the market the following June. That turned out to be wishful thinking. The new target date is Nov. 1 of this year, and it looks like he will make it.

I visited Davidson and his partner in this adventure, dentist Mike Smith, earlier this year at the headquarters of their company MD Brush. The headquarters is just an office in the dental practice they both work at in Pearland, Texas. Seated around a desk in that office, the pair told me the story of the brush.

It begins in 2007. Smith says the idea for the brush was Davidson's.

The thing about brushing is that, if you do it right, it feels a certain way. It feels like a golf swing or a perfect tennis shot down the side.
Mike Davidson, toothbrush inventor

"His story is he was in his garage one night," Smith tells me. "He's a very handy man, me not so much. But he likes to do the handy work, so he has this clay model, brings it in one day to the office, and he's like, 'What do you think of this?' And I'm like, 'What do I think of that?' " At this point Davidson interrupts Smith with a laugh. "You recognized a good thing when you saw it," says Davidson.

So what's special about the brush? Well, to remove the bacteria that cause gum disease, most dentists say you should hold the brush so the bristles are at a 45-degree angle to the gum line. Easy enough, but most people don't. Davidson's brush has an unusual handle that automatically puts the bristles at the correct angle.

"It is really, in my view, the perfect toothbrush. Not because I built it — because it makes sense," says Davidson.

Coming up with the idea for the brush turned out to be the easy part. "As far as implementing it, and making it usable, neither one of us had any idea, and especially when it came to actually fabricating one," says Davidson. "We learned, and we wasted so much money," he adds with a rueful laugh.

The first design of the brush had a bladder mechanism inside that was supposed to squirt mouthwash into the gums as you brushed. It took 14 months to design this brush, but it was too complicated to manufacture. That was $7,000 down the drain.

The next design had the same shape, but no bladder and a different manufacturing design that uses what's called a core injection system.

That brush took two years to design. But the core injection system turned out to be a bust. Another $4,000 wasted.

"And now we're stuck, and we're scratching our heads, and it's like, oh, crap, this is another redesign. This is another two years," says Davidson. That was only when I was really, 'Maybe it won't happen.' "

Smith told him to just stay positive. "We'll get through this, it's just going to take time."

They did get through it, and designed a new model with a different manufacturing scheme. They teamed up with a Chinese company that agreed to make the brush. But after spending around $9,000 on airline tickets to China, that business relationship soured, and all they had to show for it was a lot of frequent flier miles. Still no toothbrush.

Finally, they linked up with a manufacturing facility in Vietnam that had Japanese owners. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, and the factory sent a prototype.

But there was a problem. The handle on the prototype felt wrong. It felt too big. They tried it out on their colleagues in the dental practice, and everyone, especially women with smaller hands, agreed the handle felt too big.

"What we didn't know is that when they make any kind of piece of plastic for anything, they'll make it upwards of 3 percent larger than it should be to account for the plastic contraction that occurs when hot plastic cools," says Davidson. Problem is, the way their brush is designed, it didn't shrink. So the 800-pound steel injection mold the manufacturer made is useless junk.

"So then we spend the next four months arguing about whose fault it is," says Davidson.

Once they got that straightened out, another problem. This one came completely out of the blue. A geopolitical dispute between China and Vietnam nearly scuttled the brush. Thousands of rioters trashed factories in Ho Chi Minh City, where the brush was supposed to be manufactured. Why the riots? It turns out the Vietnamese were upset with China's decision to plant an oil rig off Vietnam's coast, so some people attacked Chinese-owned businesses.

Davidson says their factory was spared because it was Japanese-owned, not Chinese-owned.

As I listened to this amazing story, I began to wonder what kept them going. All this just for a toothbrush? Or maybe they were hoping to make gobs of money. So I asked them: What if some executive at Colgate hears this story and thinks, "We should buy these guys out before their brilliant toothbrush design makes a giant dent in our business"? Would they take the money?

Smith says no. "I mean, we've taken it this far," he says. "We're going to continue to take it all the way."

"It's not about money," adds Davidson. "It's about winning. And it's about beating these guys at their own game. And showing we can do something better."

Clearly this is something Davidson feels passionate about. "We're not just trying to sell a cool toothbrush," he says. "Ultimately, we want people to realize the value of having a clean mouth, because there are so many other systemic conditions that are related to gum disease. And the thing about brushing is that, if you do it right, it feels a certain way. It feels like a golf swing or a perfect tennis shot down the side — it feels a certain way. And that's what this brush is designed to do. It's designed to show you what good brushing feels like."

That's the idea, and it might be nice to have that feeling, but at the moment, he's got no proof that good feeling will result in less gum disease.

Davidson is confident that proof will come. In the meantime, they're forging ahead.

After I spoke with Davidson in early June, he flew off to Vietnam to oversee the first manufacturing run.

At the end of the first day of the run, Davidson was able to take a box of newly manufactured brushes back to his hotel.

"It was a heck of a feeling," he says. "To go through all that and finally see the vision that we had, right there in a completed form was a great thing."

There is, of course, that final hurdle: whether anybody will pay $10 for a toothbrush.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We know many of you listen to this program at breakfast time, driving-to-work time, driving-the-kids-to-school time and also teeth-brushing time. Well, just look at that toothbrush. You might think making a new toothbrush would be a simple thing. Well, think again.

As part of a series, Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca has been exploring the minds and motivation of scientists and inventors, helping us understand what their lives are like and where their passion and persistence come from. About a year-and-a-half ago, Joe first told us about inventors who had just been awarded a patent for their new innovative toothbrush design. Now that the brushes are coming off the assembly line, Joe tells us what it took to get from idea to product.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Meet the co-owners of MD Brush.

MICHAEL DAVIDSON: Michael Davidson.

PALCA: And...

MIKE SMITH: Mike Smith. Mike and Mike is what we get most of the time.

PALCA: Does this cause a problem sometimes when it's two Mikes?

SMITH: You know, every now and then. But for the most part, no, no. We're pretty much the only ones here.

PALCA: Here is an office in a dental practice in Pearland, Texas. Mike and Mike have worked together here for 14 years. Smith is a dentist, Davidson a hygienist. Both have almost movie-star good looks. Dentist Smith says hygienist Davidson came up with the idea for the brush in 2007.

SMITH: His story is he was in his garage one night - I don't know. He's a very handy man. Me, not so much, but he likes to do the handy work. So he (unintelligible) clay model, brings it in one day at the office and is like, what do you think of this? And I'm like, what do I think of that? And then he...

DAVIDSON: You recognized a good thing when you saw it.

SMITH: Then he proceeded to explain to me why...

PALCA: So what's so special about this brush? Well, to remove the bacteria that cause gum disease, you should hold a brush so the bristles are at a 45-degree angle to the gum line - easy enough, but most people don't. Davidson's brush has an unusual handle that automatically puts the bristles at the correct angle.

DAVIDSON: In my view, it's the perfect toothbrush, not because I built it but because it makes sense.

PALCA: Davidson says coming up with the idea for the brush turned out to be the easy part.

DAVIDSON: As far as implementing it, neither one of us had any idea and especially when it came to actually fabricating one. We learned, we wasted so much time.

(LAUGHTER)

PALCA: There's been a lot, and I mean a lot, of trial and error. Davidson empties a box with about three dozen toothbrushes onto his desk and starts aligning them in chronological order. These brushes tell the history of their efforts to bring their brush to market.

DAVIDSON: We can start over here on the left, OK. So the first version of it has a bladder mechanism inside.

PALCA: The bladder was supposed to squirt mouthwash into the gums as you brushed. It took 14 months to design this brush. But it was too complicated to manufacture. That was $7,000 down the drain.

DAVIDSON: We got rid of that and we came up with this one.

PALCA: He picks up another model that doesn't have the bladder. This one took two years to design.

DAVIDSON: The shape is the same, but the way that it's manufactured is totally different. This is uses what they call a core injection system.

PALCA: But the core injection system turned out to be a bust. Another 4,000 bucks wasted.

DAVIDSON: So now we're stuck. We're scratching our heads, and it's like, oh, crap, you know, this is another redesign. This is another two years. That was the only time that I was really kind of like, maybe it won't happen.

PALCA: Mike the hygienist was bummed. Mike the dentist told him just stay positive.

SMITH: We'll get through this. It's just going to take time.

PALCA: They got through it and designed a new model with a different manufacturing scheme. They teamed up with a Chinese company that agreed to make the brush. But after spending around $9,000 on travel to China, that business relationship soured, and all they had to show for it was a lot of frequent flyer miles. Still no toothbrush.

Finally they link up with a manufacturing facility in Vietnam with Japanese owners. Everything goes smoothly, and the factory sends a prototype.

DAVIDSON: They send us this one here. Yeah, OK, and this is where it really hurt.

PALCA: When the prototype arrives, the handle feels wrong. It feels too big. They try it out on their colleagues in the dental practice, and everyone, especially women with smaller hands, says, yeah, this is too big.

DAVIDSON: What we didn't know was that when they make any kind of piece of plastic for anything, they'll make it upwards of 3 percent larger than it should be to account for the plastic contraction that occurs when hot plastic cools.

PALCA: The problem is, the way their brush is designed, it didn't shrink. So the 800-pound steel injection mold the manufacturer made is useless junk.

DAVIDSON: So then we spend the next four months arguing about whose fault it is.

PALCA: Once they get that straightened out, another problem - this one completely out of the blue - a geopolitical dispute between China and Vietnam that nearly scuttled the brush, a dispute that even made it onto MORNING EDITION last May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Thousands of rioters have been trashing factories that they believed were owned by Chinese companies in Vietnam. The rioting follows China's move to plant an oil rig off the Vietnam's coast.

DAVIDSON: They rammed in the front gates of our factory, broke a few windows but they didn't do any damage to any machinery.

PALCA: Davidson says their factory was spared because it was Japanese owned, not Chinese owned. As I listened to this amazing story, I began to wonder what kept them going. All this just for a toothbrush. Or maybe they were hoping to make gobs of money. So I asked them, what if some executive at Colgate hears this story and thinks, yeah, we should buy these guys out before their brilliant toothbrush design makes a giant dent in our business.

Would you take the money?

SMITH: I think we've already talked about it. No, no, I mean, we've taken it this far. We're going to continue to take it all the way.

DAVIDSON: It's not about money. It's about winning. And it's about beating these guys at their own game and showing them we can do something better.

PALCA: But what does winning look like for you?

DAVIDSON: You know, it's - so many products are shoved at us ,and I think they're shoved at us for the wrong reasons. You know, we're not just trying to sell a cool toothbrush. Ultimately we want people to realize the value of having a clean mouth because there's so many other systemic conditions that are related to gum disease.

PALCA: And Davidson says the thing about brushing is that if you do it right...

DAVIDSON: It feels a certain way. I mean, there is actually - it actually feels like a golf swing or a perfect, you know, tennis shot down the side; it feels a certain way. And that's what this brush is designed to do. It's designed to show you what good brushing feels like.

PALCA: And it might be nice to have that feeling. But at the moment, Davidson's got no proof that good feeling will result in what he's after - less gum disease. Davidson's confident the proof will come. And in the meantime, they're forging ahead. In June, he flew off to Vietnam to oversee the first manufacturing run. At the end of the first day of the run, Davidson was able to take a box of newly manufactured brushes back to his hotel.

DAVIDSON: It was a heck of a feeling to go through all that and then to finally see the vision that we had right there in your hands in a completed form. It's really - was a great thing.

PALCA: It's taken seven years of working late, working weekends, fixing failures and spending money. The pair reckon they're in for nearly half-a-million dollars at this point, but the brush is finally ready for consumers. The plan is to start selling it online in November. The next big hurdle is whether anybody will pay 10 bucks for a toothbrush. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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