Ann Arbor firm launches sales of new athletic mouth guard design
Akervall Technologies Inc. as developed the Protech Dent mouth guard, a strip of 1.6-millimeter-thick plastic that users dunk into hot water and mold around their upper teeth.
Its inventors say the product provides 30 percent more protection than conventional mouth guards. And unlike typical bulky versions, users don’t need to remove the device to talk or take a swig of fluids, increasing convenience while lowering the risk of spreading disease.
Jan Akervall, a private ear-nose-throat doctor out of Beaumont Hospital, said he began tinkering with a better way to protect teeth during procedures such as endoscopies a couple of years ago.
With the help of Johannes Schwank, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, Akervall began working with different polymers that could be softened in hot water and shaped around the teeth. Schwank developed a pattern of perforations that help the mouth guard absorb forces more efficiently than a solid material.
“This one is thin and it hardens, and that’s really the key here is it’s hard,” said Akervall, who lives in Ann Arbor with his family. “That’s one reason why it’s protecting much better.”
The mouth guards already are being used by a number of student-athletes in the Ann Arbor area, and the company is putting together seminars that feature the product for high-school coaches pursuing CPR training with the Red Cross of Washtenaw County.
The company sells the product through its Web site and charges $29.99 for a three-pack, “somewhere in the middle” of most competitors in terms of price, said Sassa Akervall, Jan’s wife and the business manager. It has sold them to a few dentists, and the company hopes to break into school athletics distribution lines or even begin exporting them, she said.
One of the biggest challenges the mostly self-funded startup faces is awareness in a market cluttered with well-funded competition, said Scott Olson of Ann Arbor SPARK, who is helping the company shape its marketing strategy.
“These are bought by kids and moms and dads and coaches who don’t have lots of time to put into the understanding of it,” Olson said. “When you face an Under Armour, whose marketing budget is colossal, it’s very tough to stand out, even when you have very clear advantages.”
Jan Akervall, who holds two U.S. patents, said the company spent two years researching the technology, establishing manufacturing with a Milwaukee company and preparing its patent application. The firm is now focusing on making its Web site more consumer-friendly and less scientific.
Workers tried selling to hospitals, but that proved a difficult market for a small business to crack. Jan said the company is working with custom-supply and college and high-school athletics distributors as well as the military.
“That’s a long process, but that’s something that we hope to be able to do, to hook up with one or two of these (channels), because that would spread the word better,” Jan said by phone recently while heading to a meeting with SPARK.
“I’ve learned through this process that you make all these plans and two months later, you have to change direction.”
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