Unsexy industries are hot right now, the more mundane the better. Waste management? Being disrupted. Freight forwarding? Scoring billion investment rounds. Office furniture? Now available for subscription.
Dentistry ranks as unexciting to the average consumer. So right on schedule, a wave of dentistry-related startups like Henry, Tend, Quip, and Smile Direct Club have descended on cities. Henry raised $10 million last year to expand their fleet of mobile dental practices. Tend aspires to “reimagine” the dentist as a spa-like destination. Smile Direct Club, a teledentist, uses 3D image scanning to curate custom teeth kits.
Parth Patel, founder of the Philadelphia-based dental tech firm SuperDentist Labs, doesn’t think dentistry needs more sex appeal. Patel’s diagnosis for the old-school industry is simple: rapidly consolidating healthcare corporations are crushing the small private dental practices. You know, the kind of office where they remember which sport your kid plays and how many cavities you had the last time you came in. Firms like these, Patel says, serve customers best and are what most dental students aspire to operate, but can’t because of student loans that push them into higher-paying corporate jobs.
Patel has seen firsthand how tough it is for a small office to keep up. In his first year at Penn Dental, Patel bought his first practice in Philadelphia. (Since leaving school, Patel has bought or launched ten more firms.) Patel says everyday tasks like negotiating with insurance companies, financials, stock ordering, revenue cycle management, marketing, payroll and HR are simple for healthcare corporates, but for small practices, insurance fees, salaries for administrative staff and high prices for low-volume orders make it nearly impossible to operate competitively while prioritizing patient care.
His SuperDentist software, which he created with ex-Google and ex-Microsoft engineers, aggregates dentists' central business functions into one dashboard — an “operating system” for the dental industry. In theory, SuperDentist lets practices operate as efficiently as major conglomerates, while still remembering where your older sister went to college and which side you need to floss more on.
Patel’s theory is compelling amidst the branding and amenities arms race that passes for innovation in so many industries, where “X is making Y cool again” is a standard headline. He’s currently piloting SuperDentist at his own firm. Dentists can currently request early access to the software, which will go to market in May or June and look to raise a Series A this summer, online.
We spoke to Patel about his industry, innovation and surprising dental trends.
You started your career as an actual practicing dentist and bought your first practice when you were a first year dental student. How did you pull that off?
Partly it was luck, I found a good opportunity. Part of it is privilege, my father supported me to get that deal done. I made a ton of mistakes. But when it’s sink or swim, you learn fast. Really my whole goal right now and what I am focusing on is providing doctors with opportunities that meet their goals. I see myself as an enabler taking in account all my experience to help doctors create their own unique practices and serve patients as well as they can.
What do you think is the biggest issue in the dental industry?
In general, in the world of health care, there's an increasing number of corporate groups and big money and it takes away from the local, doctor-patient relationship-focused feel of healthcare, which is how I believe it should be. Insurance companies and bigger corporates just have so much leverage, where it becomes nearly impossible for a solo practitioner to compete and do well. Dental students are stuck. It's like, "Alright, I've got a lot of student debt from undergrad, from dental school, and I need to make money, and what are my options?” They say, “I can try to start my own practice and serve patients to the best of my ability” or “I need a stable income so I can join a corporate group." People join corporate groups because they have to because they can't afford to take risks or take on any more debt.
Where does SuperDentist come in?
My whole goal is to enable any doctor to launch their own clinic, do it their way, and have a partner on the business side and technological back-end so they can compete in an increasingly corporate world. SuperDoctor Labs is effectively an operating system for the dental industry. Our first product is called SuperDentist. What it does is create a single dashboard that does everything from negotiating and streamlining insurances, which most doctors just don't have the bandwidth to do, to banking, financials, accounting, revenue cycle management, ordering supplies and managing inventory with scaled pricing that a typical solo doctor could never get. The idea is to enable any dentist to start or buy their own business and operate at a high level. It basically gives them a corporate partner without having to have a corporate partner. I created it with a team of three engineers, ex-Google, ex-Microsoft and I’m piloting it at my own clinics right now in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
What was the lightbulb moment for this product?
Well, I was a part of a bigger firm with a bunch of practices. I saw through my own eyes, the advantages of having increased volume and having multiple clinics under one backend, as far as insurance claims and negotiating fees. I saw how to handle claims, inventory and supplies, how much cheaper those things got with more scale and being able to overlap resources. Every clinic I added, it got increasingly profitable. I also saw that student debt is a real real issue right now and a lot of dental students are graduating with a half a million in debt. You combine these two things where consolidating healthcare groups are only getting stronger and students graduating debt is only getting larger. What ends up happening is dentists come out of school and are forced to work for these bigger corporations. Private practice should always be a thing. Doctor-patient relationships should be unique and special, not commodified. I thought to myself, there's software we can build to take everything that big companies have an advantage over, and offer it to everyone.
So you didn’t just get out of school and say “I want to disrupt the dental industry.” You saw firsthand what needed disrupting.
People think of dentists as making a lot of money. The reality is that right now, that's not really the case. There's tons of debt and the incomes aren't like what a dentist would make in the 1990s relative to most people. The profession's taking a beating form corporates and insurance companies.
Dental startups have become more and more common. What do you think is missing from the field?
Healthcare is always best local. I really believe that. It isn't something that does well with a national franchise. The best offices and the best patient care happen at private practices that know their patients. When healthcare gets too big, those relationships don't get built. I'm building a tool that any doctor can leverage to own, buy or build a practice and see a community of patients. That practice could look like a beautiful modern Smile Direct Club. But it could have any look or style. It's up to however that dentist wants to market and model their practice. At the end of the day, our platform will let them do that, enabling them to operate in the increasingly insurance-driven, increasingly consolidated world.
What do you make of companies like Tend or Henry that purport to be “reimagining” dentistry?
Let me ask you a question. Are those companies innovating or are they just putting headphones and Netflix next to the chairs? Those companies look better than 99% of dental offices but they're not really doing anything different. All the new technology that those companies market, we have those same things. Like scanners and CCTs and aligners. But at the end of the day, those companies are no different than big, national corporates. I don't think that that's the best vehicle for healthcare. Private practice and local healthcare wins at the end of the day because you have really invested doctors doing it their own way. If they have the resources, any doctor can launch an office like Tend, with a slick design. So, with our platform, you could have 100 “Tends” but they could all be under different brands and have local teams that understand their patients.
So you very much want to go beyond just making offices feel fun.
That’s all easy stuff. Health care is people treating people. It's not fancy equipment treating people. The best clinics in my experience and the best patient experiences come from the best teams of providers and staff. I would say how you're treated is more important than their selection of Netflix shows. And that's something you can't scale.
You mean it's difficult to scale the quality of the team.
It’s hard to scale the quality of the patient care and the patient experience, the customer service, the details remembered for every patient.
Probably the single biggest impact on a patient experience is cost and insurance, if they feel they’re getting a fair price and their insurance is being handled.
This platform enables doctors to automate their insurance claims. All these things that doctor's get bogged down in. That stuff actually directly impacts price because now they don't have to spend all this administrative overhead and time to manage that stuff. We manage all that with our platform, so doctors can come in with more affordable price points.
Practices save money by eliminating administrative workers who previously had to do paperwork by hand? Or the platform automates to find cheaper insurance loopholes?
I think it's both. There is so much wasted time, money and energy into dealing with insurance companies. Insurance is basically just a massive tax on the healthcare system. Let's say you're paying $400 a year for your premium and your insurance pays $200 per year, that's 50% of the money that doesn't go towards your healthcare. Doctors get $200 of that, and then it costs them another $50 to just participate with that insurance company and go through their hurdles and do the paperwork.
What are the hottest trends in dentistry right now?
We encourage and will support doctors in learning the widest scope of procedures they'd like. What I'm finding is becoming increasingly popular, with no signs of turning around, is lip fillers and botox. Another is dental implants and implant surgeries just because America's population, the number of senior citizens, 60 or 65-plus people, since people are living longer, that need and demand is growing really practice. How do we help? We certainly help recruit patients that have missing teeth or have never gotten the education on why or how to replace teeth. From a cost perspective, by aggregating demand and ordering implant parts in bulk, that can make the cost of these typically expensive supplies much cheaper for an individual doctor, like if they're making orders like a big corporate group. That allows them to pass savings on to the patient.
How do you think the dental industry will be different in 10 years?
I think every dentist will have the opportunity to practice autonomously. I think healthcare will transform from this increasingly corporate landscape back to people serving people. And that's really the key trend that I'm interested in facilitating.
And you think innovative technology will make that a reality.
Right now, private practices have no chance of competing with bigger corporations or insurance companies. I definitely think it's like how Substack helps writers become their own publishers. They’re their own media companies. Those tools are obviously much more complicated in healthcare because there's so many variables and things you have to check off. But that's what I'm working to build.