A Journey from Dentist to Product

- By Sophie Bracken, Dentistry.

Original interview first published 6 June 2016 in Dentistry Magazine

Earlier this year Alan, Managing Director of Astek Innovations, was interviewed by Dentistry Magazine, a leading UK trade journal, about his journey from dentist to product innovator and the growth of Astek Innovations.

Astek Innovations is a small yet highly innovative dental products producer based near Altrincham. The company – founded and run by dentist Dr Alan Segal – is focused on making a positive difference to the dental profession through new inventions and enhancements to existing products. And who can identify the challenges faced by dentists – and how to overcome them – better than a qualified dentist?

A creative mind

A self-confessed gadget man, innovation and product refinement is something that Alan has been interested in from the early days of his career. After entering general dentistry in the 1970s and setting up his own practice group and commercial laboratory, it wasn’t long before he set out on the path to making one of his inventions a reality.

And so, alongside running a dental practice and commercial laboratory, Alan began on the path towards developing his first dental product, the Alma Gauge.

‘I was interested in the denture technique and I felt there was a gap in the accuracy of preparing bite rims’, Alan says. ‘A lab produced gauge was developed that pinpointed the relative position the upper incisal tips to the papilla and after several prototypes we had a product that delivered a new level of accuracy to the technique.

‘Manufacturing tools were commissioned, patents applied for – packaging, exhibitions, lectures and articles all led to requests for the product as far as USA and Japan.’

The Alma Gauge became the focus of an MSc thesis and there are many supporting articles and endorsements by leading clinicians. The product is still recommended and an integral part of several world-leading prosthetics companies. A number of other products were subsequently developed into the Alma range.

Alan set up his first business in 1989, and after early success with his first inventions, he decided to concentrate full-time on running the product development business. He continued to work part-time as a dentist until 2008.

‘It was a natural progression’, he explains, ‘a way to challenge a creative mind and fulfil my love of dentistry at the same time.

‘Dentistry is such a diverse profession; I really believe that there are lots of ways for dental professionals to enjoy it and be fulfilled, whether that be clinically, through teaching, working with industry, or in my case, developing innovative products to improve dentists’ and patients’ experiences’.

Driving innovation

Today, Astek Innovations offers an extensive range of world-first products that are designed by a former dentist, for dentists, and sold in 65 countries worldwide.

‘If there are 100 products out there; we’re not looking to be 101’ says Alan, explaining the company’s ethos. ‘What we’re trying to do is improve technique, cleanliness, safety, precision, quality of dentistry.
‘I believe there’s more than one way of doing something really well, and to respect the competition is very important. There are some very fine companies out there and sometimes there’s no “best” way of performing a technique.’

This constant drive to improve on existing techniques is one of the reasons why Astek Innovations was awarded Product Launch of the Year at the Dental Industry Awards in late 2015, for the launch of the Transform Heat Mouldable Impression Tray in February of that year.

Transform Impression Trays are made from a heat mouldable material, which allows them to be moulded to create precise primary impressions. This leads to increased quality in subsequent stages. They help to overcome the clinical challenge of taking impressions where unusual bone shape and tooth position exists. They can be moulded chair-side in less than 60 seconds.

‘That award was the result of a lot of experience. We had developed and marketed a number of products prior to that and we had been developing and improving our strategies. Our previous major product launch, the Pro-Matrix Disposable Matrix System was one of the best-selling new products launched in 2013.

‘It recognises not just the team effort in marketing the product, it’s a whole range of activities and a marketing programme, clinical reviews and eventually attracting the interest of dealers, good advertising, and of course, a good product.’

At the same awards ceremony, Astek Innovations was also highly commended in the category of Outstanding Business of the Year. ‘Again we were delighted – there was serious
competition’ says Alan. ‘We’re especially delighted because we’re a relatively small company, so we’re very honoured.’

Small team, big ideas

Indeed, Astek is a small company compared to some of its competitors, with just 14 staff, but Alan doesn’t see this as a hindrance. In fact, he believes that having a small team is an advantage, allowing the team to build strong relationships and for the company to retain talent.

‘Most of our staff have been with us for over 10 years’ Alan says, which is a testament to any employer.
‘We have a wonderful philosophy – I tell everybody what to do, and they all do the opposite, and that seems to work out really well! A dental nurse from my first practice has been with me for 31 years. She’s now our sales and quality manager.

‘We have a national sales development manager, a business development manager, an accounts department, marketing manager, logistics department, warehousing and product development department. We’re a great team, everyone gets on very well.’

But how does this small company based in the north west of England manage to stand out in a crowded market dominated by multi-national giants?

Alan holds a refreshing view towards competition in the market.

‘The dental trade is wonderful to be a part of; the competition is healthy and as long as we get our share of the market, enough endorsements and enough people praising and buying our products, we’re happy. We’re also happy for our competitors to do well as well, it’s not a problem.

‘Competition encourages everyone to work on our products to improve them, to think of new ideas, to use better materials and techniques.’

Globalisation

Despite selling internationally, Alan is in no hurry to expand his team, explaining that the company can scale up manufacturing quite easily without the need to add too many more personnel.

‘I believe there’s an optimum size for a company, and I’m happy with the size we are’, he says. ‘Personally with 20, 30, 40 people, I would find it difficult to know everybody, enhance their careers and work with them on a personal level.’

That’s not to say that Astek Innovations isn’t ambitious. The company has broken into 64 international markets and operates manufacturing facilities in China and Taiwan, as well as in the UK. Astek also manufactures hundreds of products for a number of the world’s leading companies.

This is a feat that’s not to be underestimated, when you consider the different regulatory requirements and hurdles that each market demands, as Alan explains: ‘In Europe the CE mark is mandatory, but Australia, for example, it’s not (medical devices sold in Australia must be approved by the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration).

‘What’s also important from our point of view is to present the product, and meet people.
‘We go to exhibitions, follow up, send samples. I must say it’s very exciting going abroad. We’ve been to many countries – it’s been a remarkable, exciting, stimulating experience just to be manufacturing the products. We have really good friends from all over the world and it’s become more than just business.’

At the time of our chat Alan is getting ready to head out to California, where Astek Innovations has opened a new office in Los Angeles. So despite a wariness of expanding his team too much, this small UK-based company is taking great strides in establishing itself as one of the most innovative product developers in the global dental market.

As you'd expect from a premier producer of dental products, we often have plenty going on. Read on in this section to discover more about Astek Innovations and the industry at large.