DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We know many of you listen to this program at breakfast time, driving-to-work time, driving-the-kids-to-school time and also teeth-brushing time. Well, just look at that toothbrush. You might think making a new toothbrush would be a simple thing. Well, think again.
As part of a series, Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca has been exploring the minds and motivation of scientists and inventors, helping us understand what their lives are like and where their passion and persistence come from. About a year-and-a-half ago, Joe first told us about inventors who had just been awarded a patent for their new innovative toothbrush design. Now that the brushes are coming off the assembly line, Joe tells us what it took to get from idea to product.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Meet the co-owners of MD Brush.
MICHAEL DAVIDSON: Michael Davidson.
MIKE SMITH: Mike Smith. Mike and Mike is what we get most of the time.
PALCA: Does this cause a problem sometimes when it's two Mikes?
SMITH: You know, every now and then. But for the most part, no, no. We're pretty much the only ones here.
PALCA: Here is an office in a dental practice in Pearland, Texas. Mike and Mike have worked together here for 14 years. Smith is a dentist, Davidson a hygienist. Both have almost movie-star good looks. Dentist Smith says hygienist Davidson came up with the idea for the brush in 2007.
SMITH: His story is he was in his garage one night - I don't know. He's a very handy man. Me, not so much, but he likes to do the handy work. So he (unintelligible) clay model, brings it in one day at the office and is like, what do you think of this? And I'm like, what do I think of that? And then he...
DAVIDSON: You recognized a good thing when you saw it.
SMITH: Then he proceeded to explain to me why...
PALCA: So what's so special about this brush? Well, to remove the bacteria that cause gum disease, you should hold a brush so the bristles are at a 45-degree angle to the gum line - easy enough, but most people don't. Davidson's brush has an unusual handle that automatically puts the bristles at the correct angle.
DAVIDSON: In my view, it's the perfect toothbrush, not because I built it but because it makes sense.
PALCA: Davidson says coming up with the idea for the brush turned out to be the easy part.
DAVIDSON: As far as implementing it, neither one of us had any idea and especially when it came to actually fabricating one. We learned, we wasted so much time.
PALCA: There's been a lot, and I mean a lot, of trial and error. Davidson empties a box with about three dozen toothbrushes onto his desk and starts aligning them in chronological order. These brushes tell the history of their efforts to bring their brush to market.
DAVIDSON: We can start over here on the left, OK. So the first version of it has a bladder mechanism inside.
PALCA: The bladder was supposed to squirt mouthwash into the gums as you brushed. It took 14 months to design this brush. But it was too complicated to manufacture. That was $7,000 down the drain.
DAVIDSON: We got rid of that and we came up with this one.
PALCA: He picks up another model that doesn't have the bladder. This one took two years to design.
DAVIDSON: The shape is the same, but the way that it's manufactured is totally different. This is uses what they call a core injection system.
PALCA: But the core injection system turned out to be a bust. Another 4,000 bucks wasted.
DAVIDSON: So now we're stuck. We're scratching our heads, and it's like, oh, crap, you know, this is another redesign. This is another two years. That was the only time that I was really kind of like, maybe it won't happen.
PALCA: Mike the hygienist was bummed. Mike the dentist told him just stay positive.
SMITH: We'll get through this. It's just going to take time.
PALCA: They got through it and designed a new model with a different manufacturing scheme. They teamed up with a Chinese company that agreed to make the brush. But after spending around $9,000 on travel to China, that business relationship soured, and all they had to show for it was a lot of frequent flyer miles. Still no toothbrush.
Finally they link up with a manufacturing facility in Vietnam with Japanese owners. Everything goes smoothly, and the factory sends a prototype.
DAVIDSON: They send us this one here. Yeah, OK, and this is where it really hurt.
PALCA: When the prototype arrives, the handle feels wrong. It feels too big. They try it out on their colleagues in the dental practice, and everyone, especially women with smaller hands, says, yeah, this is too big.
DAVIDSON: What we didn't know was that when they make any kind of piece of plastic for anything, they'll make it upwards of 3 percent larger than it should be to account for the plastic contraction that occurs when hot plastic cools.
PALCA: The problem is, the way their brush is designed, it didn't shrink. So the 800-pound steel injection mold the manufacturer made is useless junk.
DAVIDSON: So then we spend the next four months arguing about whose fault it is.
PALCA: Once they get that straightened out, another problem - this one completely out of the blue - a geopolitical dispute between China and Vietnam that nearly scuttled the brush, a dispute that even made it onto MORNING EDITION last May.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Thousands of rioters have been trashing factories that they believed were owned by Chinese companies in Vietnam. The rioting follows China's move to plant an oil rig off the Vietnam's coast.
DAVIDSON: They rammed in the front gates of our factory, broke a few windows but they didn't do any damage to any machinery.
PALCA: Davidson says their factory was spared because it was Japanese owned, not Chinese owned. As I listened to this amazing story, I began to wonder what kept them going. All this just for a toothbrush. Or maybe they were hoping to make gobs of money. So I asked them, what if some executive at Colgate hears this story and thinks, yeah, we should buy these guys out before their brilliant toothbrush design makes a giant dent in our business.
Would you take the money?
SMITH: I think we've already talked about it. No, no, I mean, we've taken it this far. We're going to continue to take it all the way.
DAVIDSON: It's not about money. It's about winning. And it's about beating these guys at their own game and showing them we can do something better.
PALCA: But what does winning look like for you?
DAVIDSON: You know, it's - so many products are shoved at us ,and I think they're shoved at us for the wrong reasons. You know, we're not just trying to sell a cool toothbrush. Ultimately we want people to realize the value of having a clean mouth because there's so many other systemic conditions that are related to gum disease.
PALCA: And Davidson says the thing about brushing is that if you do it right...
DAVIDSON: It feels a certain way. I mean, there is actually - it actually feels like a golf swing or a perfect, you know, tennis shot down the side; it feels a certain way. And that's what this brush is designed to do. It's designed to show you what good brushing feels like.
PALCA: And it might be nice to have that feeling. But at the moment, Davidson's got no proof that good feeling will result in what he's after - less gum disease. Davidson's confident the proof will come. And in the meantime, they're forging ahead. In June, he flew off to Vietnam to oversee the first manufacturing run. At the end of the first day of the run, Davidson was able to take a box of newly manufactured brushes back to his hotel.
DAVIDSON: It was a heck of a feeling to go through all that and then to finally see the vision that we had right there in your hands in a completed form. It's really - was a great thing.
PALCA: It's taken seven years of working late, working weekends, fixing failures and spending money. The pair reckon they're in for nearly half-a-million dollars at this point, but the brush is finally ready for consumers. The plan is to start selling it online in November. The next big hurdle is whether anybody will pay 10 bucks for a toothbrush. Joe Palca, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.