FEBRUARY 21, 2017
Aidan Butler has taken teeth, yes teeth, and made them interesting thanks to a few 3D printing machines and some seriously famous athletes.
“Hey, I’m English. What do I know about teeth?” So says Aidan Butler, CEO of Guardlab, Inc, who runs a company that makes a product that protects your teeth. Actually, Butler knows A LOT about teeth, and through his partnership with a couple of enterprising dentists, he has become almost uncannily well-versed on pearly whites, jaws, and even the way you breath. As we walk around the Guardlab headquarters in Farmingdale, NY (45 minutes east of the city), he pauses at a computer station to pull up a floating three-dimensional scan of some anonymous person’s chompers—they're...not great. Nevertheless, I can see them in great detail, from the gums to pointy incisors. Soon this scan will manifest as a hard plastic reproduction of the real thing thanks to one of their 3D printers. Elsewhere, a technician will use a machine to melt some proprietary goopy plasticky type stuff (science) over the faux set and voila: a neuromuscular guard, designed to keep ones jaw on tight when one gets smacked, hard. Just the kind of thing that happens when, say, Conor McGregor gets you in the ring.
UFC fighter Cody Garbrandt celebrates in his custom Guardlab mouthguard. Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC
Turns out that Guardlab is the official mouth guard of the UFC—not a small feat considering MMA is the one sport where you are required to punch and kick people in the face, and the fact that the custom guard industry is rife with competition. But the burgeoning popularity of the UFC in the United States made it a particularly choice target for a company like Guardlab which claims to manufacture a better, safer customized mouth guard in the least annoying way (no putty molds, no giant payout). MMA and the UFC were Guardlab's holy grail of "official mouthguard"-ships. “What’s the toughest fucking sport known to man," asks Butler, rhetorically. "MMA. Look, if we’re going to get validation for the best goddamn mouth guards in the world, we have to get these guys." And Butler got in with them almost by accident when he met fighter Joe Lauzon while paint-balling (of all things). The two men hit it off, Butler made a sales pitch, and Lauzon picked up what he was putting down. “The first time we were in a fight, I was so nervous," he said. "What if this guy gets hit and it doesn’t work? But, long story short, [Lauzon] loved it, and I got introduced to the UFC.” After that, Guardlab had to run the UFC health and safety gauntlet, presenting their doctors and professionals with evidence that Guardlab guards were really the most effective way to keep your teeth in your head. "It was a big process to go through," says Butler "but now they feel comfortable that all of their fighters have access to the best mouth guards." To date, they've scanned 150 of the fighters, and have found they're just as into the guards as the UFC. "We don’t pay people to wear our products and don’t try to outbid other companies. We’ve found athletes generally come around to wanting one of ours."
UFC fighter Dennis Bermudez models his custom Guardlab guard. Courtesy of @ryanloco.
It's worth mentioning that Guardlab is a young company—really young. It was founded in 2014 but went live in 2015 making them just about 2 or 3 years old depending on how you look at it. In that time, they've not only become the official mouth guard of the most brutal sport on earth, but they provide mouth guards to the New England Patriots, The White Sox, The Blue Jays, Georgetown University, the Australian Football League, the whole of the Renzo Gracie Academy, and more. Normal folks can get the mouth guards too through the extensive network of dentists or their "Find a 3D Scanner" tool on their website. Butler calls particular attention to a smaller "guard" that fits on your lower teeth and doesn't so much protect as keep your face in check. This one helps athletes in any sport keep their jaws and bites aligned, especially when they grit during exertion. The alignment promotes better posture and airflow which is why Guardlab can count Olympic rowers and speed skaters—remember Apollo Ohno?—as customers too. Butler thinks everyone should have at least one, and keeps trying to convince me that even though I don't fight, or even work out really (¯_(ツ)_/¯) I should probably get fit for a guard right there and then. "People don't realize how delicate all this is," (he motions to his waggling jaw). "Alignment is so important for keeping yourself awake, not getting knocked out, and not getting injured."
Guardlab CEO, Aidan Butler. Leslie Kirchhoff
Butler, who just turned 40, originally hails from Birmingham, England, aka that city where Peaky Blinders takes place. When I bring up this pop culture connection he says something along the lines of “Oh yeah, that show is about my family.” Turns out Butler himself was a licensed bookmaker in Birmingham, just like his father before him, and his father’s father before him. But after a few career twists he found himself in a room with two dentists and their design for a better mouth guard, one that not only protected your top row of teeth but kept your whole jaw inline when it took an impact. Custom medical guards are not a new concept—in fact 3D scanning and 3D printing is a bit of a trend in the dental industry—but the idea of using this technology for sports guards primarily was something Butler brought to the table and ultimately ignited his passion for the project. “Could somebody do a real disruption on garden shovels? Yeah! But do I want to? No!" (For the record, Butler then presented—off the cuff—about 5 genius garden shovel improvements.) Ultimately it was the aforementioned interest in sports, and probably the fact that he's by birth a betting man, that inspired him to take on teeth. “It was a better product, but it needed a better way to get to market.”
So the former bookie and self-proclaimed tech-nerd came up with the idea of incorporating scans, a 3-D printer, and that goopy plasticky mold (at right) into sports guard manufacturing. At first it was his ambition to become the "Uber of mouth guards," imagining hundreds of travelling scanners on demand for whomever requested one. "It was a Great Idea! But how much are the scanners," he says with a laugh. "50 grand!" That was obviously financially unviable, so he turned to plan B: dentists. Guardlab formed relationships with hundreds of dentists who were already using the scanners and then convinced them that their guard design was the best. And thanks to their proprietary process, getting a perfectly fitted guard, whether medical or sport-related, is vastly more cost efficient. Before, medical guards could cost over $1200 each time, and if your bite changed thanks to a crown or a lost tooth? Too bad, do it all again. Now they're relatively cheap: around $150 for kids, $250 for adults. Sport guards, while more expensive that the traditional boil-and-bites (you know, the ones you used in high school), are still a pretty good deal—two customized guards for $99.
Now that they’ve conquered, or rather saved, teeth what's next for the enterprising former-bookie? Shins. Yes, shins—as in shin guards. Butler wants to scan your shins and used the same customizing technology he uses for your mouth, to create perfect-fitting guards for your legs. But then, talking to Butler, one gets the sense that this train has really just left the station, there's so much more of our soft, fallible bodies that could be sheathed in protective gear. After all, remember that this is the man who had only a casual relationship with his own teeth and admits: “Nobody told me what floss was until I was 27.” If he can turn that into a burgeoning dental empire, I think we can expect more big, disrupting, 3D printed things from him yet.