Newton-Based Company a Leader in ‘Teledentistry’ & Pop-Up Dental Care
Virtudent is changing the way consumers receive oral healthcare through their mobile dentistry service. In just a few short years, the Newton-based company has grown from an idea housed at the Harvard Innovation Lab to a 17 person company focused on delivering high quality dental care in a unique way.
Virtudent provides on-site dental screenings and preventive dental care services to businesses and their employees via state-of-the-art pop-up dental clinics. Offered as a healthcare benefit by employers, Virtudent is making going to the dentist easy and stress free for consumers by bringing the dentist to their place of employment.
Co-founders Hitesh Tolani and John Voith, aim to make a traditionally headache-inducing service vastly more convenient by cutting out the hassle of actually going to the dentist.
Q. Where is dental care in the broader digital healthcare world?
Tolani: The link between systemic health and oral care is clear. Yet, 40% of Americans can’t access this basic healthcare need and we still pay more for dental care than we do all cancer treatments combined. Driving down the cost of this mammoth sector is essential and this is where digital health can play a key role.
Currently, the technology is available, but many dentists aren’t trained in it and practice models haven’t been defined in which there is a clear path to revenue. It’s essential that forward thinking companies and dentists blaze a path for dentistry to easily fit in to the broader digital healthcare world and Virtudent is excited to be playing that role.
Voith: The digital health ecosystem I used to live in didn’t regularly think about “dental” and “healthcare” in the same sentence. If we can think about these together, there are huge systematic cost savings that can be realized - and also healthcare will feel a bit more coordinated and human-centric for all of us.
Q. What were some of the challenges you or your company faced as you got off the ground?
Tolani: How do you start something that costs thousands and thousands of dollars without access to capital? The universities helped start the process for us. I grew tremendously at the Harvard i-lab, where we won the President’s Challenge, and subsequently also won the Tufts 100k. That was a huge hurdle as a young grad with loans who needed influx of capital to keep going. However, once that hurdle was surmounted, we had to raise even more capital to scale. Fortunately, being in Massachusetts there is a robust venture scene here which has allowed us to continue running our business, without going far away to find capital partners.
Voith: The blessing of Massachusetts is also the downside. There is so much innovation going on here that when you’re starting a company you’re also competing for the same great talent. Things can be expensive. You’re competing for the same pool of resources of these other amazing companies.
Q. What helped you gain funding/capital/VC support for your firm? Was there a breakthrough that helped prove your solution to investors?
Tolani: I didn’t want any venture funding initially because I wanted to make sure outside investors didn’t influence the mission and vision of the company.
At the same time, I didn’t want anyone to quit their job and work with me if there wasn’t a certain level of security for them financially. It weighed heavily on me and I wanted to make sure they had some salary. To initially keep the idea going, there was some initial funding through the Harvard President’s Challenge at the i-lab, The Tufts 100K, and MassChallenge. That wasn’t enough to support myself, but it was enough to build the idea.
Voith: I worked at athenahealth for almost seven years, worked at startups for a bit, and a venture firm. It’s amazing that alumni from athena and the other places I worked are now all over Massachusetts in a variety of organizations. We’ve been fortunate to create and leverage the network of folks we’ve worked with over time.
Q. Massachusetts has a strong cohort of both healthcare and technology companies, which the digital health cluster has grown from. What can we do to help spur the growth of the Mass Digital Health cluster?
Tolani: The RFP process needs to be improved. There is a lot of talk around governments creating opportunities for startups, but they then themselves don’t create those opportunities. RFP processes are prohibitive for startups to gain traction with governments and in turn result in very little innovation in the government sector. This needs to change and governments around Massachusetts need to be given a mandate to work with startups and support/encourage innovation.
Voith: The regulatory complex at the national and state-level is set-up with good intent, but it also stifles innovation and is prohibitively costly for start-ups. We’re lucky in Massachusetts to have many forward thinking government and regulatory leaders; however, it’s important for those in power to realize that well intended regulations and policies can create inadvertent monopolies or lock in very outdated models if those regulations aren’t viewed through the lens of allowing innovators to improve the system.
Q. What are some of the workforce needs of the Digital Health industry here in Massachusetts?
Voith: I think that one of the things that may be different in this space is how to think about product management. For example, you go to the west coast, there’s this idea of the project manager in the tech world. They understand the user, they understand how to align the product to improve the user experience. In the digital health area, product management is different from straight tech. There’s a lot of health care regulatory considerations and clinical best-practice decisions that need to be weighed as well.
Tolani: If there’s any place in the country that has the healthcare talent you want, it’s here. We’re sitting in the best place, but what could be better? We could have more people who understand how to be software engineers and how to be HIPAA compliant. Healthcare marketing is very different, it has a lot to do with behavior change. We need people who can not only own traditional marketing, but also understand behavior change.