Orthodontics Industry Getting Wired

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The 100-year-old orthodontics industry is getting wired.

Backed by $137 million in venture capital, Silicon Valley startup Align Technology Inc. hopes to take a big bite out of an $8 billion industry with a 3-D computer imaging system that straightens teeth without unseemly and uncomfortable metal braces.

``Orthodontics has been in the horse-and-buggy age for a long time now. We are this industry's automobile,'' said Kelsey Wirth, Align's 31-year-old president and daughter of former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth.

Align uses a patented high-tech system — called ``Invisalign'' — that maps out a treatment plan with 3-D computer images.

The computer software allows Align's technicians to create a series of clear, removable retainer-like molds — called ``aligners'' — that move teeth with few hassles, little pain and no obtrusive wires or brackets. In typical cases, a patient will wear more than 20 different removable aligners for two- to three-week periods.

Although they generally view Invisalign as a promising new technique, orthodontists who have used the product still have reservations.

``It's not a cure-all. It's going to be more of a niche product,'' said Dr. Michel Van Bergen, who has orthodontics offices in San Francisco and Fairfield. ``There is also potential for abuse here. There could be more dentists that may try to use (Invisalign) just to make patients look good, but they might not get the bite quite right.''

In his trials with Invisalign, Van Bergen said the product had trouble moving some teeth to the desired position targeted in his treatment plan.

Other orthodontists are concerned about relinquishing so much control over patient treatment. Because Invisalign relies heavily on lab work and computers, the adjustments made by orthodontists during in-office visits become less important. The success of the treatment also depends largely on the patients' dedication to wearing the removable aligners.

Susan Andre, a Sacramento resident who just finished straightening her teeth with Invisalign, said the ability to remove the aligners is one of the best things about the product. ``It gives you the power to control your pain,'' said Andre.

Andre, 35, wore traditional braces as a teen-ager and signed up for the Invisalign test to straighten teeth that had shifted out of place again. She said the difference between Invisalign and traditional metal braces is ``like night and day.''

Few people outside the orthodontics industry know about this potential breakthrough, but that is about to change. In an effort to broaden its reach, Sunnyvale-based Align is rolling out a $38 million marketing campaign over the next several months.

The 3-year-old startup is preparing to appeal to the investing public as well; plans for an initial public offering may be filed as early as this week.

Align already has made big impression on venture capitalists, who have invested in the company in four different phases, including a $105 million round completed last month. The company's backers include Menlo Park venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which also helped finance Amazon.com and Netscape.

Align says nearly half of the nation's 8,500 orthodontists have been trained how to use the Invisalign system so far.

Align is targeting the millions of adults who have crooked teeth, but don't bother to straighten them because they don't want to walk around with metal in their mouth for a year or two. The company's research indicates about 50 million U.S. adults between the ages of 25 and 49 wish their teeth were straighter.

About 20 percent of the estimated 5 million people wearing braces in the country today are adults, according to the American Association of Orthodontists, a St. Louis-based trade group.

The Invisalign treatment isn't recommended for teen-agers — orthodontics' main customer base. That's because adolescents often don't have all their permanent teeth and may lack the discipline to wear the aligners on a round-the-clock basis.

Invisalign is expected to be 20 percent to 50 percent more expensive than traditional braces, which typically cost anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000.

One of the test patients, Ann Fulcher of San Diego, said Invisalign is worth a little extra money.

``I would think that a lot of people are going to want to do this,'' Fulcher, 41, said. ``There was little discomfort and they're barely visible.''


On the Net:


American Association of Orthodontists: http://www.aaortho.org