In the last of a six-part series on innovative start-ups, biomedical engineering firm Biomers tells Francis Chan how it is taking a concept from lab to market with help from Spring Singapore's Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme.
FOR patients undergoing orthodontic treatment, wearing dental braces to align their teeth usually means living with a lot of discomfort and years of hiding their smiles.
But local biomedical engineering firm Biomers might just have come up with the invention to put the smiles back on: translucent braces.
"People have wanted translucent braces for a long time and now they finally have a full orthodontic system that is translucent," said Biomers founder Mervyn Fathianathan, 34.
Dental braces are usually used in orthodontic treatment to correct malocclusions - or abnormalities in the development of teeth - and the entire process can take anywhere from six months to six years, depending on the severity of the patient's malocclusions.
The braces, including brackets, arch-wires and, in more advanced stages, retainers, work by applying force to realign teeth.
Traditionally, they have been made of stainless steel, nickel, titanium or a combination of the metals.
According to Dr Fathianathan, translucent brackets were first introduced to the market 30 years ago for aesthetic reasons, but they made little sense because the other parts of the braces were still made of metal.
"We, however, managed to develop the world's first and only translucent orthodontic arch-wire and retainer to make the entire system translucent," he said.
How the Singapore start-up became the first in the world to develop translucent orthodontics has been down to the expertise and help of Dr Fathianathan's friends and partners.
Biomers was set up by in 2005 by Dr Fathianathan and Mr George Aliphtiras, 35, his Greek-Canadian coursemate at the London Business School.
Dr Renuga Gopal, 31, and Ms Karen Teo, 32, friends from his undergraduate days at the National University of Singapore (NUS), were later roped in to help.
The start-up team was not light on qualifications. Dr Fathianathan has a PhD in mechanical engineering, Mr Aliphtiras holds a master's in microbiology, Dr Gopal has a PhD in mechanical engineering, in addition to being a nano-composite expert, and Ms Teo has a master's in engineering.
But the fledgling venture needed cash, which thankfully came from prize money the team got from business plan competitions they entered and won in Singapore, the United States and Britain.
Biomers first worked in the area of developing engineered materials.But their research became more focused when they met an NUS research group working on polymer composite-based medical devices. This gelled with Dr Gopal's own research she had done earlier.
"We were working with the dental faculty, doing a lot of projects and trying to engineer aesthetic products to replace the metal components like the wires or brackets in braces," said Dr Gopal.
Biomers had a simple goal: Make metal orthodontic components invisible. However, this turned out to be easier said than done.
"The challenge was to make materials with properties that were similar to metal, but without the appearance of metal. And you need stiffness, strength and of course translucency and bio-compatibility," said Dr Fathianathan.
"When you put all the constraints together, it becomes a fairly complex task to achieve - many have tried and failed."
Biomers succeeded in developing translucent arch-wires by combining dental polymer resin - a plastic material - with glass fibres to create stiffness.
Putting the two materials together posed a challenge for Biomers given that the two compounds needed to be evenly distributed in the final product.
"This is a big challenge, simply because we're dealing with such a small item. If you look at the cross-section of the arch-wire, it is really, really small at 0.0014 inches in diameter," said Dr Fathianathan.
Dr Gopal said Biomers was able to successfully develop the arch-wire by using a patented system to ensure an even distribution of compounds in micro-scale products.
"That is why we went into the business of making retainers because we can easily customise without the need to make specific shapes for the mouths."
Biomers has sold more than $1 million worth of products worldwide since translucent arch-wires and retainers were introduced in 2008.
The Singapore-based company - with the help of venture capitalists - has now set its sights on Europe and the US, with an aggressive marketing campaign, helmed by US-based Mr Aliphtiras.
Biomers recently received a $500,000 grant under SPRING Singapore's Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme to develop arch-wires with a rectangular cross-section for use in the intermediate and advanced stages of treatment.
The firm is now focused on pushing the rectangular arch-wires through clinical trials and expects to be soon in a position to launch the technology onto the market.