Align takes dentistry to a new level

Kelly Dawson
May 9, 2018
10 min read
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There are more than 250 companies in our combined portfolios, and they are all making amazing advancements. From names you know, like Tesla, to those little gems you haven’t heard of yet, like Xylem, we want you to know all about what your holdings are up to. These ‘deep dives’ will help you understand what you’re invested into and how your dollars are making the world a better place. 

Align Technology is part of our Healthy Living portfolio.

  • For a little more that 20 years, Align Technology has worked to integrate cutting-edge methods into the traditional field of dentistry
  • In 2017, Align Technology surpassed $1.4 billion in annual revenue and praised more than 6,000 employees
  • Align Technology has served more than four million adults and one million teenage customers with Invisalign

We all know the power of first impressions. That’s why we stress over what to wear to a job interview, which stories to tell during a blind date, and how firm our handshakes are when we’re introduced to someone new. But besides the exchangeable worries that come with this initial meeting, there is another slightly more fixed aspect to first impressions that can make a lasting impact: teeth.

There are countless online stories about how to make a great first impression, but most seem to include the importance of smiling. A listicle in Inc. argues that it’s the number one thing to do, because “48 percent of all Americans feel that a smile is the most memorable feature after first meeting someone.” While we can’t speak for everyone in that statistic, we can assume that a straight, white, and sparkling grin tends to do better than its crooked counterpart. In fact, a study by Kelton for Invisalign found that to be true (yes, most dental studies are funded by dental companies). People with straighter teeth tend to land job interviews, are seen as more attractive by potential partners, and are viewed as more trustworthy than those who don’t have a picture-perfect mug.

In a society that views teeth as a small indicator of overall prosperity, most will try to do whatever they can to get that Crest commercial look. And for those who didn’t go the traditional wire-and-bracket route to do so, there’s Align Technology. For a little more that 20 years, Align Technology has worked to integrate cutting-edge methods into the traditional field of dentistry. From its groundbreaking iTero Intraoral scanners to its coveted clear Invisalign aligners, Align Technology is responsible for giving millions of people the smiles that can help promote their personal and professional wellbeing.

In 2017, Align Technology surpassed $1.4 billion in annual revenue and praised more than 6,000 employees with contributing to that success. But it also knows that its business isn’t available to everyone who needs it, whether that’s near its San Jose, California headquarters or abroad. While there are many factors contributing to poor oral health in the United States and around the world, Align Technology is committed to helping more customers receive the care its products provide in the future.

Let me see your grillz

“Historically, the options for improving the aesthetics of the human smile were rather limited: For centuries, if not millennia, extraction, dentures, or the filing down of teeth to create the illusion of alignment were the state of the art,” writer Bobby Doherty explained in New York Magazine. “But never before has mankind’s obsession with the smile been so easily actionable.”

In this story, Doherty provides a glimpse into the nation’s preoccupation with the perfect smile. It’s a concern that makes the dental industry about $110 billion a year, although that includes necessary and optional procedures. But long before the facet of cosmetic dentistry was so popular, Align Technology was simply just another bright idea.

In 1997, Zia Chishti and Kelsey Wirth were two students studying business at Stanford University. At the time, Chishti had just had his traditional braces removed, and he thought that the entire process — including getting a fitting for and regularly wearing his clunky retainer — could use a modern upgrade. He envisioned something that was more transparent than wires, and could be worn while eating. And perhaps just as importantly, he wanted something that grownups could use that didn’t carry the stigma of “adult braces.” Wirth helped develop this idea, and they partnered with two more students, Apostolos Lerios and Brian Freyburger, to get it underway.

Like most success stories that emerge from Silicon Valley, the next stage saw the common disbelievers, a surprise partner for an initial funding, and a garage phase to perfect the prototype. Then the FDA approved Invisalign in 1998. But the bold move that set this company apart came just after the millennium. Orthodontists weren’t exactly thrilled to use a product developed by business students with no dentistry experience. So Align Technology built an aggressive advertising campaign to get consumers’ attention, which made the public push orthodontists to take notice. In order to do this, the company was spending more than it was making. And two years after going public, the founders resigned in 2003.

The next few years saw a new CEO, a slash in marketing spending, and a shift in the world of dentistry: Orthodontists accepted this new technology as a viable option for straight teeth. These days, Align Technology has served more than four million adults and one million teenage customers with Invisalign. It’s available in about 100 countries by 130,000 specially-trained dentists, and that has allowed the company to expand its offerings with the creation of the iTero Intraoral scanner. Unlike taking traditional bite molds to see where teeth are misaligned, this one-minute scanner produces a 3D look at a grin for a more precise plan of action. The scanner helps produce everything from Invisalign orthodontics, crowns, bridges, veneers, and implants, thanks in part to the world’s largest supply of 3D printers and the teams of engineers shaping each specific polymer mold.

In all, this digital approach is less invasive than the processes of the past, which makes it easier to help those with a common fear of the dentist chair. And for patients who are only looking for a better smile, this process can make it happen faster than traditional braces. These are accomplishments that the company is understandably proud of, although there is still much it wants to do.

Grin and bear It

Align Technology’s feats are happening at a time when there are plenty of pitfalls to getting a satisfying smile. In a review for Mary Otto’s buzzworthy new book “Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America,” the New York Times journalist Sarah Jaffe writes, “One-third of white children go without dental care, Otto notes; that number is closer to one-half for black and Latino children. Forty-nine million people live in ‘dental professional shortage areas,’ and even for those who do have benefits under public programs like Medicaid... it can be difficult to find a provider.”

It’s true that most people who want better smiles — those who know that it affects their job prospects and love lives and overall confidence — can’t attain it for a myriad of reasons. It depends on each smile, but without insurance Invisalign can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $8,000. Insurance can cover about $3,500 of that, however, and various payment plans are available.

Because the company’s products are made digitally, Align Technology’s ongoing mission is to continue to push the boundaries of this process. Highly detailed scanners can take a clear picture of a mouth and provide true-to-life renderings of how to gradually adjust teeth now, and it will get even more specialized in time. The same can be said about the fast production rates of various molds, which will be easier to create with advancing 3D computers. Everything under Align Technology’s control will only get more streamlined.

For now, Align Technology is continuing to develop its technology, knowing that it has the tools and network to hopefully make its products more accessible in the future. Given the innovative professionals and machines working behind the scenes, and the larger factors surrounding its work, this is an ongoing story that’s much more interesting than it seems upon first impression. But, then again, the same can be said about anyone, regardless of their smile.

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