Dental Disruptor – Elims (017)
Elims is a social impact company that combines seriously effective oral care + real sustainability. They believe you don’t have to compromise your health for the planet. That’s why Elims is not just sustainable. Each of their products are crafted by dentists, biotech professionals and sustainability experts, and they actually work at keeping your teeth clean and sparkling white. They combine the best of science + nature by only using clinically backed and tested ingredients to effective natural ones to bring your oral care for everyone.
Casey Lau, DDS, Tobin Arthur, Belinda Lau
Tobin Arthur 00:22
Hi, everybody, this is Tobin, Arthur, with the Innovation4Alpha podcast, and I am really excited today to talk about a new dental company for AngelMD in our community. And I’ve got two of the principles with me Belinda Lau and Dr. Casey Lau. And I love for you guys to talk a little bit about your backgrounds first, and then let’s we’ll get into the company. So Belinda, do you want to kick us off? And then we’ll yeah, Casey?
Belinda Lau 00:47
So I actually spent 15 years at Medtronic, and the largest medical device company in the world. And most of my time there was spent on the marketing side, but it’s not like, you know, launching products and creating brochures and stuff. I was really on the product development side of marketing. So my job was if we were going to spend $500 million in 10 years and tons of resources in these projects we better have our market research or market data together to know that the products and the features that we’re developing are going to hit the mark when we launch many years later. So that was that was my job. So I came I so I started biotechnology. I graduated from Carnegie Mellon with biomedical engineering and material science, engineering, and then I went to UCLA to complete my MBA. I started this company about two years ago with Dr. Casey Lau, who is my co founder and was a dentist. So let him introduce himself.
Casey Lau, DDS 01:47
Well, so I’m Casey Lau, I’ve been born and raised in the Los Angeles area. In fact, I went to UCLA for both my undergrad and for dental school. I’ve been practicing for about close to 20 years now. And I met I met my co founder and wife about 12 years ago now
Belinda Lau 02:16
in in his dental office.
Tobin Arthur 02:31
That’s cool. And you you set up shop your practices in Northridge?
Casey Lau, DDS 02:38
Yeah, I’ve owned my practice for that same amount of time. I practice with my brother. And we have a pretty busy, thriving practice. It’s been there for almost 40 years. So wow, long before i set up shop there. And it’s it’s a great practice. We take care of a lot of patients.
Tobin Arthur 03:02
I love the combo. The medical device background combined with with your dental expertise, that’s pretty cool. So when, what was the point at which you guys decided to launch this? What was the moment?
Belinda Lau 03:19
I am one of those ideas people. So I was a little girl daydreaming about things that I would do, or people I would meet, or what kind of boyfriend I would have, like, I just was constantly daydreaming. And when I became an adult, that daydreaming turned into fantasizing about different business ideas. And so I I spent a lot of time chewing on Casey’s ear saying, “Hey, I’ve got this idea, that idea.” And he said, you just need to start trying these things. And I guess because I was working a corporate job and we had three little kids at home, I just didn’t have the time or the energy to try something new. And so I started my MBA program, a bit older. I guess I just was not satisfied with the corporate life. I was making life saving devices at Medtronic, which was really cool. I got patents on one of my products into Time Magazine’s invention of the year. Wow. So I was doing a lot of great impactful stuff, but it just, it just wasn’t satisfying, I guess enough. And so I was in 2019, I was in business school, I was on my way to meet one of my professors of entrepreneurship. And I was driving, quite frankly, I was stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway – the 405. And I was listening to a podcast very much like this. The podcast is called How I built This by NPR. It’s very well done. And the episode I was listening to is Toms Shoes. And the CEO, he was talking about mission and impact and developing products that people cared about. And it really was like a Hollywood movie, I just stopped the car. And I was like, That’s it! I’ve got to combine my background in biotechnology with something that is tangible, something that has a big impact. And I was like, I gotta do oral care, because we have Casey at home, who’s an expert and his brother’s also a dentist. And it’s something that I can navigate. I have no regulatory no product development, I know this space. So I went to my meeting with my professor, I pitched it to him, he said, You know, it’s actually not a bad idea. And so I drove home that night, and I told Casey, and I remember, he was standing in the kitchen, when I pitched it to him, and he paused and he goes, “I love it. Let’s do it.” And that’s pretty much how it started.
Casey Lau, DDS 06:02
I’ll say this, she’s probably spent many an hour coming in with me after hours for emergency patients. And, you know, she’ll see the pile up of all of our waste that we have in the office. And she always thought, what are we doing with all of these bags and bags of garbage. And, you know, it always struck me as wasteful. But there’s nothing you can really do about it. So I think some of that really impacted her.
Belinda Lau 06:28
So we also have three little kids at home. And everyday, they brush their teeth, obviously, we floss for them, but they’ve got little mouths. So we use the little floss picks. And every day, we would say, “God, this is such a waste” the little plastic bits just go right into the trash bin. And as a business person, you can’t just go with an idea, you’ve got to test the market. And so I started talking to people about it. And they said, Yeah, there’s not really anything that both is really good for brushing your teeth, or keeping your oral health up, and is completely sustainable. I went into the UCLA Anderson library and I started doing some research and pulling up articles. And I found out that the market for oral care is a $46 billion industry worldwide. So it’s a sizable market, really dominated by very specific companies. So there’s enough of this pie to go around. And so we just decided, let’s build some prototypes, let’s find some product development partners, who can develop some prototypes for us. And let’s, let’s see what we can do. And so that’s really how it started.
Tobin Arthur 07:32
You’re hitting on a lot of interesting points. As an aside, several months ago, my wife’s sink was constantly backing up. So she was out of town and I thought, well, I’ll be industrious and play plumber. I got down there and I was mucking around with the joints. And you know, it’s just disgusting. And I finally figured out the clog. And it was all of those dental picks that you’re talking about. They’re so small, and she would set it on the sink and then, you somehow they would fall in and so they accumulated. And you guys are obviously in a great location. I mean, LA is a very entrepreneurial market, the Anderson School, has a lot of great entrepreneurship tradition. So you’ve had a lot of great resources, maybe we can touch on that here in a second. But fast forward. Dental is an interesting space, because it’s a massive space, it’s under appreciated, most people focus on the other aspects of medical, a lot of times when you talk about Medtronic, for example, it’s an enormous organization, but, but Dental component is a growing niche. And in many ways it’s a very entrepreneurial and innovative niche. Dr. Lau, I’m sure you and your brother are both very entrepreneurial.Your business owners, and a lot of physicians don’t necessarily have that same experience. So talk a little bit about how you’re thinking about the opportunity. What was it that you saw in terms of the numbers. Walk us through what’s the goal of the business fundamentally, and what were you seeing as an entrepreneur at the time to really attract you further than other than obviously, the inspiration from Tom’s etc.
Casey Lau, DDS 09:25
Once we’ve talked about this to you, Tobin, I think, you’re you’re gonna find that you can’t walk down the street without finding some piece of dental way. So we knew that was that was a thing, you know, in terms of, you know, growing a business.
Belinda Lau 09:56
One of our advisors is literally Elon Musk’s, personal attorney. He, he was originally his divorce attorney and then went over to Tesla for a few years. And the the first thing he said when he met us was, you are working on something that everyone on the planet has to do. So your impact, right could be huge, just just like Tesla, right? A lot of people drive cars. But not everybody drives, right, every single person on this planet has to take care of their teeth. So the amount of trash that is created, the amount of impact that we can actually reduce from that waste is really enormous. So a $46 billion industry, there’s over, in the US alone, over a billion toothbrushes that are thrown away in the US every single year. So if we could put a dent in any of that, we’ve already made a difference. And we’re also trying to be the first oral care company ever to be completely net carbon zero. So we’re in the process of being carbon free with our partner the carbon funds. And so we’re going through the process of getting that that certification now. So we know that our impact would be really huge.
Tobin Arthur 11:18
So when you start seeing the problem, did you immediately go towards? “We’ve got to build products that are biodegradable?” Or how did you arrive at the products that you’ve built now?
Belinda Lau 11:30
Yeah, I would say we started with the toothbrush. Okay, so this is more of the business journey. So we said everybody uses a toothbrush. We started with a manual toothbrush, because it’s something that everyone knows how to use. Electric toothbrushes are tricky from a sustainability standpoint, because of the lithium battery. Yeah. So we said, “hey, it should be pretty straightforward to make a biodegradable toothbrush.” And so we started with it, we started going down this path. But in our market research, we literally have spent probably 400 hours of interviews with customers with key partners and things like that experts and we’ve done countless surveys and analyses. And what we found through all of this is that, you know, people have a tough time switching from their toothbrush. When I ask “how often do you change out your toothbrushes, change your toothbrush brands”, they would say oh, like maybe every five or seven years. So as a new company, I can’t build a business off of someone who might switch their toothbrush in about five or seven years. So we started looking to some other products in this category that are pretty high margin, but can people would be more open to switching and so things like toothpaste, like more of the consumable toothpaste, and the like teeth whitening products floss are things that people buy when they have an issue. So if you’re walking down the oral care aisle at Target, you’re picking based on maybe a certain need that you have, like maybe it’s whitening, or its sensitivity or gum, you know, comfort or something like that, and they’re more willing to switch. So that’s why we actually started with, with toothpaste and with teeth whitening products, because teeth whitening is interesting. And toothpaste, everyone needs toothpaste and people are more willing to switch. So all our products are housed in sustainable packaging. Our toothpaste is housed in toothpaste tubes that are made out of renewable sugar cane resin, and it’s put into a recycled paper pulp box. And the same thing for our teeth whitening it’s placed in a box that is completely recyclable.
Casey Lau, DDS 13:41
And I’ll say this as a dentist for the last 19 years, we basically provided the same toothbrush in your goodie bag with very little variation except probably two or three times. I remember making a change on design but not brand. So to get the dentists to buy in it would be kind of a trick but the toothpaste on the other hand, you know we’re always looking for better formulations. Besides Elims you know I have about three different brands that we recommend to patients because not every everyone is going to like one one flavor versus another. Although we really think we have a great one but you know, it’s something that is very personal.
Tobin Arthur 14:37
So talk about Elims the product. Let’s start with the toothpaste. So how did you go about formulating it and I’ve noticed I don’t know if it’s the same on the website versus so the packaging you’ve kind of used a lavender and a purple color is that consistent across your products?
Belinda Lau 14:53
Our brand colors are this lavender color and a darker purple like we talked about living in the Pacific Northwest. So you know, the summer times in the Pacific Northwest are just gorgeous. And the days lasts forever, right? So the sunsets at 10pm. And where I’m from in Vancouver, the sunsets at around 10pm In July, and it’s this beautiful lavender color. It’s just absolutely stunning and gorgeous. And so we use a lot of inspiration from Vancouver. And when I brought up this color, Casey said, Well, you know, actually, that’s the official color of dentistry. So when he graduated from dental school, his lapels and sachets and all that stuff were all in this lavender color. So it’s this beautiful like, dual meaning. And then from a marketing standpoint, we looked at every single oral care company out there, and we mapped their colors. And they were all using blue. And they were all using red like Colgate and no one was using the purple color. So we knew it was something that we could own. So in this category in the oral care category, the purple stands out is absolutely it looks stunning. So we use that for our brand colors. But the purple toothpaste is a different flavor. It’s a Lavender Vanilla mint, which is kind of a unique kind of flavor. It’s very calming and soothing. And then the other toothpaste that we have right now is a pineapple orange mint. And both of them have nano hydroxyapatite and xylitol, which nano hydroxyapatite is as well have been used in toothpaste in Japan for over 40 years to help fight cavities. And we we have a fluoride product coming out to the market because you know fluoride is the gold standard. But nano hydroxyapatite is being taught in dental schools right now as the natural version of a fluoride. So we looked at the clinical data, we built this product and we tested it with real users and people loved it, people thought it was really awesome.
Casey Lau, DDS 16:56
hydroxyapatite is actually the the mineral that your teeth and your bones are made out of. So when we’re bathing your teeth with Nano hydroxyapatite we’re actually bringing back some of the minerals that you’re losing from day to day use of in eating different acidic foods. And so it’s really kind of a no brainer. Xylitol, interestingly, has been around for a long time. In Asia. if you go into an Asian supermarket, you’ll find toothpaste and gum that’s actually named after the the sugar, but it’s it’s actually anti microbial.
Belinda Lau 17:44
I mentioned Casey and I have three kids at home and so every night we’re always like really, really tired, you know have like a little glass of wine and just pass out on the couch. I’m sure any people have experienced something very similar so I would fall asleep on the couch. And you know at 1am Casey come around, and say Belinda, it’s time for bed. So I wake up sort of still half asleep, go to the bathroom, I have to brush my teeth, but this really bold minty toothpaste that would wake me up and then I couldn’t go back to sleep for a few hours. So I said hey, I want to develop something that’s a little bit like calmer a little bit more chill, something that actually helps promote that nighttime that bedtime routine. And so we came up with this formula where it’s a little bit of mints, very refreshing, but it’s not overpowering like most toothpaste that you would see at like a Target or a CVS and then our pineapple orange Mint is is really the opposite. It’s got a little bit of green tea in it a little antioxidants. And it’s got a little bit more of a bold mint flavor. So it’s really designed to help you get on with your day good for the morning routine or on the town.
Casey Lau, DDS 18:50
What’s funny is what’s funny is I actually like a toothpaste that kind of you know gives me a little swift kick in the rear and yep, you know, so she she wanted something different and so we kind of compromise we have one of each.
Tobin Arthur 19:03
Now speaking of kids is this a kid appropriate toothpaste?
Belinda Lau 19:07
Yep, absolutely. Because we have three kids I’m on these mommy blogs and Facebook groups that are very concerned about fluoride in the little ones and people have been talking about fluorosis, which is fluoride poisoning in kids. As I understand it’s fairly uncommon, but there’s still a concern and so nano hydroxyapatite and our toothpaste actually great, great for kids and our kids use them.
Casey Lau, DDS 19:36
I’ll say this I’m an advocate for fluoride. But you know, we’re in LA and I get a lot of patients that daily they asked me “Can I get something without fluoride?” And to be honest there there hasn’t there’s not a lot of good products out there that are fluoride free and can do what fluoride does so it was important for us to come up with a product that I was comfortable recommending, and we can recommend to parents, so it’s cool. Absolutely it’s good for kids.
Tobin Arthur 20:14
Let’s talk a little bit about the business now. So you’ve got your first products are in the pipeline to toothpaste, the teeth whitening. And I brought up the lavender, by the way, just because I, for the exact reasons you said I thought this has got to be intentional. It stands out, it’s very catchy. So Job well done there. It’s it’s done exactly what it should do. Talk about where are other than people finding your website, how can they find the product? What is the next 6 to 12 months look like for you?
Belinda Lau 20:49
Yeah, absolutely. So we officially launched in July. So it’s only really been a couple of weeks, we’re pretty early on. We did a pilot back in June just to test the market test the marketing messages and things like that. But official launch was in July, and it was great. Like we were on Yahoo Finance, the Boston Herald, New York Times all these major news outlets picked up our story, a lot of inbound interest from some really large organizations. So that’s been really, really fantastic. And so we have our E commerce site up live, we are in the process of signing a retail agreement with a major retailer that’s based out of New York, Miami and Los Angeles. So that’ll be our first retail space where people can go and see our product interact with our product. And then the next six months is really around brand awareness, getting our name out getting people to know who we are, what we stand for, what our mission is. And in terms of product development, we have a couple of products that are coming to market. Some of them already designed, some of them are in the process of being designed. So we’re looking at a floss product. That’s really great. We just wrapped up a clinical study with that in Europe. And we’re looking into electric toothbrushes and find a more sustainable version of electric toothbrush.
Tobin Arthur 22:14
On the ECOM side, have you set it up yet so that people can just have a subscription? And it just shows up? Or is it buy as they go the present? Or how are you thinking about that?
Belinda Lau 22:24
Yeah, I personally find subscriptions either to be really helpful, or they can really be like a money suck. So I didn’t want to like handcuff our customers into anything. So we give them a real choice. We said, you know, easy peasy. If you want this subscription, we’ll give you a little bit of a discount, free shipping all of that good jazz, and then you don’t have to think about, you know, buying oral care products ever again. Or you can do ad hoc, whatever you want to do. So we’re really flexible in that way. But our products are naturally inclined for a subscription, because they run out and everyone brushes their teeth, so they need them.
Tobin Arthur 23:01
That makes a lot of sense. I agree with you. And we’re sort of anal about it with our kids. We’ve got a closet full of toothbrushes. So after one of them’s had a cold or something it’s like out with that sucker and in with the new one. What are you guys looking for next? Is it just continuing to expand awareness? Are you going to raise capital, you know, talk about some of the needs over the next year,
Belinda Lau 24:03
we’ve raised a little bit of friends and family. So not a ton, probably less than $200k. And we’ve obviously put in some from our savings as well, we are looking to raise a little bit more to get through to extend the runway. So right now our runways about 10 to 12 months, trying to extend it to 18 to 24 months. And so we’re trying to raise about $300k in an Angel and friends and family in a round. And is it called a seed round? The definitions of pre seed and seed have changed in the last couple of years. But I think it’s a pretty solid seed round. And what we want to do with those funds is really around three things. One is really to help prepare us for expansion. So we’ve got a couple of these retail partners in place and there’s others that we’re talking to. So really getting set up in these retail channels. In the retail channels also include dental offices, we want to expand and be the brand of choice. When you go into a dental office and you see products on display or your your dentist or your hygienist recommends things. We’ve had several medical spas reach out to us because our products are cosmetic in a way. And so we’ve sold to a couple med spas. And then the other things that we would like to do with it investment is around new product development, obviously like bringing some unique sustainability products, sustainable products to the market, in addition to the ones that we have now. And then third is really around brand awareness. So like really helping getting our name out, reaching out to more medical and dental professionals as we expand the brand. So I think from an investor standpoint, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re also looking for advisors, we need to help build out a network of ambassadors and advisors to help us answer key business questions. How do we launch into dental offices? How do we launch? Or should we launch into dental office? Should we stick with retail? Should we be focused on a more children’s line? Or is there something else there? Should we be focused on different products? Should we be thinking beyond products? Should we be thinking about a service? Right? How do we scale? How do we grow? So those kinds of things? I think we need more folks like Casey and his brother advising us on this. So I think this community Angel MD community is perfectly set up for that.
Tobin Arthur 26:47
That’s the fun part about businesses, it’s a chess match. There’s no single answer and how you slice and dice this will determine certain things like exactly the questions you’re asking. There’s definitely some folks I have in mind, I’ll make some introductions after the fact both some really key dental influencers in our network, as well as some that invest exclusively in dental products. If nothing else, they’re good people just to know, whether it’s for now or for later.
Belinda Lau 27:44
When it comes to sustainability, I think people feel like either you’re like crunchy granola, or you know, it’s health. So in our market, we feel like we have to compromise, right? Like, you know, you get the bamboo toothbrush doesn’t work that well to clean your teeth, but you know, it’s sustainable. Whereas you can get an Oral B toothbrush, it’s better for your health, but it’s not great for sustainable from a sustainability standpoint. And there’s nothing more pressing than our health and sustainability at this point. I mean, if you’ve seen the reports from the UN and things like that, like we need a real focus in the next 40 years around sustainability. So our with our products, we know that our products are clinically backed, so you don’t have to compromise your health or the planet or vice versa for one or the other. So you can have both, right. And so when we think about it from that point of view that you don’t have to sacrifice the health or the plant, there’s so much you can do in the healthcare space. So I come from Medtronic, and I spent 15 years in the operating room, watching our products being used, how much trash is involved in that even simple things like the autoclaving the instruments and these Tyvek packages that have to be sterilized, all of those things need a reboot, need a sustainable reboot. And so our North Star mission really is to reduce waste in all of healthcare, not just in dental, can we just happen to start an oral care, but if we could, you know, reach out to Medtronic and the big hospitals of the world to help them reduce their waste and help them eliminate their waste in a more responsible way. It could be a really, really huge market for us.
Tobin Arthur 29:30
That’s great. And you guys are great. spokespersons for the business because first of all, you don’t come across as crunchy types you come across as obviously you’re very professional. And you run a thriving practice and so you’ve got that credibility but on the other hand, a great mission. I love the story and both personally the way that this came about it’s super fun and unique. And and the story itself is fantastic one so we’re very excited to have you guys involved and start are getting this and amplifying this story out there more widely let us know. Let me know anything we can do to help. Thank you so much. Thanks so much for having us.