LightForce’s CEO Alfred Griffin recently sat down with Dr. Chris Cetta on the Illuminate Orthodontic Podcast. Over a couple of Manhattans, they discussed how Dr. Griffin became interested in orthodontics, the birth of LightForce, and some of the biggest challenges and growth moments the company has experienced over the past year.
5:17: Keeping It In the Family
Dr. Griffin grew up in a family that loved teeth—his father was an orthodontist and his mother a dentist. Although he was originally set on being in medicine, he soon realized that being in the orthodontic field was the best direction for him. “We get to actually be a doctor and do what we always think is best for the patient. That's actually something we talk about all the time at LightForce is, every decision we make passes through the lens of, is this the best thing for the patient? If you love helping people and you love working with your hands, you're going into surgery or dentistry, and I saw the best value and the most rewarding career path in dentistry and really in orthodontics.”
10:53: The Bone Guy
After attending MUSC in Charleston, South Carolina for his DMD, PhD program and doing a thesis on skeletal biology, Dr. Griffin attended Harvard for his residency where his fellow residents nicknamed him “the bone guy.”
“What brought me up to Boston and Harvard specifically, was the research...there are only so many residencies where you can tap into world-class labs that really care about cell signaling. And that's what Harvard had in the dental school, is world-class skeletal biologists, which is really what I cared about. Obviously, we pivoted quite a bit.
The other thing that I love about Boston is just the city. I mean, you've got so much technology up here, you've got so many people that are just on the cutting edge of so many different industries, software development. It's like if you look at the world, the hub for 3D software engineering is Boston. There are more 3D printing companies here, there are more CAD software companies Onshape, math labs, PTC. It's the global hub for this type of software engineering. I always wanted to explore what we could do in orthodontics with digital manufacturing, mass customization. And there's no better place in the world to do that than Boston.”
15:33: (Still) Keeping It In the Family
Orthodontics remains a shared love between Dr. Griffin and his father, who is actually a key part of LightForce. Dr. Griffin Sr. reviews cases submitted to LightForce to keep quality high. “Quality is the most important thing in any company. And we talk about that non-stop. We're obsessed with quality at LightForce. And so we have an incredible team of people in Costa Rica, 60 people in Costa Rica, 15 in Ukraine, in Kiev. But we still today have an orthodontist look at every case that goes out as a final quality check to make sure that there's nothing missing, nothing that was overdone, that the treatment plan generally makes sense, the LightPlan.”
17:22: Iterate, Iterate, Iterate Until You Get It Right
The idea for LightForce came from executing on the current applications of the time. Technology was limited and injection molding was being used, meaning that stock brackets were being rewelded at the custom angulation. This was the first example of customization in fixed appliances, but it wasn’t 100% customized because the bracket pad was still a stock pad. “We just weren't at a point in technology in general, where we could 3D print and scale and make it make economic sense, a clinically effective bracket. And so that was what... 2015 all this started. I call 2015 to 2017 our failure years.”
We tried a lot of different things. We always believed that 3D printing and mass customization were the future of the profession, but there weren't technologies that would enable what we deemed a clinically efficacious bracket. We learned a lot, I would say, those were the best years. We learned more in those two years than we did in the last three.”
20:33: The Importance of a Mentor
Lou Shuman, one of the co-founders of LightForce, was an important part of LightForce’s growth. With his confidence and experience as an entrepreneur, he helped guide Dr. Griffin through the moments of doubt and difficulty.
“Everyone needs a mentor, everyone needs a coach. And you're not born with this knowledge and this skill set. So you sharpen your axe with great people, and that's how you get better. And what was really important to me is that Lou is an orthodontist. What was critical to me is that this is a company by orthodontists for orthodontists. We had opportunities to license the patent with companies that did not value what orthodontists do...Lou was a guy who said, ‘Look, there's a bigger opportunity here, there's bigger value to the orthodontic community, and in the wrong hands and the wrong intentions, this could go a different direction.’ What I really value is that we are bringing this to orthodontists.”
28:04: The Value of Customization in Orthodontics
The entire 3D printing industry has a market cap of $14 billion, but Invisalign, one of the companies that applies 3D printing, has a market cap of $50 billion today. This shows that there’s a big value to customization in orthodontics and that the money is not in the 3D printing industry itself, but more so what you do with it.
“There are a ton of incredible 3D printing technologies out there, whether they're in the software materials, or in the hardware. But ultimately, we live in a world where we value how you can help people. You don't help people by having a cool way to 3D print carbon fiber, for example. What are you going to do with that application? Ultimately, that's going to be determined by how much people value customization. There's a value to 3D printing something that we use to move teeth. And the reason why is because teeth are very unique.”
29:32: How COVID-19 Contributed to LightForce’s 8x Growth
When COVID-19 began in March 2020, it became a turning point for LightForce’s growth. Many orthodontists had to rethink their businesses and focus on efficiency in a time when patients didn’t want to come into an office and open their mouth for 15 or 20 minutes. This led a lot of orthodontists to transition to digital orthodontics.
“Some of our best stories happen from COVID, honestly, where an orthodontist couldn't see their braces cases for six months and they couldn't see their LightForce cases for six months. They were stuck in third-order NiTis and came back looking great for the LightForce cases, versus stock braces where they weren’t sure what they were getting. We also transitioned to things like remote monitoring and many other technologies that helped orthodontists adapt to this role.“
32:13: The Importance of Digital Workflow
One of the things that makes LightForce so efficient is that it can tie into your current aligner workflow. “We designed the workflow to meet orthodontists where they are today. We wanted to minimize the disruption to their practice when someone's getting onboarded. If you've done aligners in your practice, you can do LightForce.”
37:44: The Value of 3D Printing
One of the major benefits of 3D printing is the ability to hear doctor feedback and iterate quickly, making any changes needed. Because 3D printing is driven by digital manufacturing, hardware changes move at the pace of software innovation. Dr. Griffin gives an example of this:
“We had a doctor while back ask for hooks on the upper twos. The doctor's logic made sense. He said, ‘I want a more horizontal vector on my class two elastics.’ And I said, ‘Okay, let's see how it goes.’ So, two weeks later, our software engineering team is able to design hooks on the upper twos and he's got those hooks on the upper twos up for a case. And that's because of the nature of what we're doing. We're 3D printing, we're using digital manufacturing. In the traditional world of bracket manufacturing, what that would mean is a year of mold design and then injection molding that at scale. Due to the nature of the technology we're working with, we're able to innovate faster than existing companies.”
42:34: Introducing Face Map
One of the things that LightForce users love is to optimize smile arc to deliver a higher level of quality and aesthetics. With LightForce, you can optimize both the vertical position and the torque of teeth. Because of this, LightForce built a diagnostic tool, called Face Map, for determining where smile arc should be, and it doesn’t involve a large 3D photometry machine. Instead, users can scan patients with their phone or tablet and superimpose the face on top of the LightPlan.
46:20: A New User’s Experience
Dr. Cetta is a new LightForce user and has had a great experience with the digital workflow, but what he really emphasized was the customer service. “Customer service is not easy when you have a brand new company. I feel like your sales reps have been on and your customer service reps have been on. Anytime I've run into an issue, for example, I had to rebond a bracket when my IDB tray broke during the process, you guys were like, "No problem. We'll send a new one right away, expedited." I mean, that was incredible. People take customer service for granted, but for a startup company to have all your stuff together, that's not easy.”
47:08: Customer Obsessed
The theme of 2021? Customer obsessed. Dr. Griffin explains how the goal is to learn as much as LightForce can from their customers and to help them succeed because they run businesses as well. “We want to be thought of as a partner more than a company. We want to be in their corner.”