IF you’re going to have a ‘eureka moment’ that leads to a successful business idea or invention, then it would probably be best not to have it while you’re studying to be a dentist. After all, this is not one of those courses where students don’t have to show up until there’s an exam to sit. But then the thing about sudden flashes of inspiration is just that – they’re sudden and unexpected.
So when David Stone, while in his third year of dentistry at Cardiff University, realised there was a gaping hole in the student market for loupes – magnifying lenses to help see into a patient’s mouth more clearly – the timing of his discovery was perhaps not ideal.
He had been suffering from a bad back – one of the banes of a dental career, with musculoskeletal problems a major cause of early retirement – and was looking for a way to ease the situation. “It was in my third year of this five-year course,” he says, “and I thought to myself loupes seemed like a good idea. They’re magnified so you don’t have to lean in quite as far to see in great detail what you’re doing.”
Coupled with this, he had also noticed that whenever his dental restoration work on one of the dental school’s phantom heads was checked by one of two supervisors, it was the person wearing the loupes who picked up his mistakes more clearly. So here was a chance to kill two birds with one stone, he thought.
But when he started investigating the possibility with a loupes sales representative who was visiting the university, he was struck by the price. The loupes themselves were around £800 but, more importantly, it was the cost of the parts that grabbed his attention. He explains: “Whenever I go to buy anything, I try and work out what’s going to break and how much it’s going to cost to fix. So I asked how much it would cost to replace the arm of the frames. When she said £250, I thought, that seems like a hell of a lot of money for a bracket with a hinge.”
David loved to haggle and had taken on street sellers from India to Morocco, and now the barterer within took over. But instead of trying to drive down the selling price in this instance, he went on the hunt for affordable loupes. Through the internet, he found a manufacturer that made loupes that were fit for purpose – and at a fraction of the price. Then some of his friends tried them out and decided that they would like a pair too, so he bought five more and passed them on at cost price.
Loupes take some getting used to and they do make you look “a little geeky”, says David, but nevertheless he noticed that the arrival of several pairs in the phantom head room sparked considerable interest, far beyond what he was used to seeing on the once-a-year visit from the loupes salesperson. He identified two reasons for this: the much lower price and also the fact that fellow students could try them out for more than just a few minutes, with no urgency to buy there and then.
That’s when he had his eureka moment. “It was at that point that I thought, hang on, there’s no end of dental students in Cardiff!” And so, in 2009, his firm UKloupes was born.
He bought some more pairs – “They got snapped up” – and then a few more, and fairly soon, with a handful of loupes at the ready in his hospital locker for potential buyers to try out a week at a time, he noticed that something of a trend had begun. “The more the dental students wore them around the hospital, the more other people were looking at them and saying, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind having a go’, without even coming to see me first. They would then say to me, ‘I tried John’s pair – can I just have some exactly like his?’”
He knew he was onto something when even some of the lecturers and visiting dentists, intrigued by the sudden popularity of loupes, bought from him.
At this point, David was only selling his loupes locally and found that with some judicious time management he was easily able to keep up with his studies. “I didn’t struggle too much. I was a mature student, as I’d done a degree in biology before, and I was a little bit better at managing my time than other students. And yes,” he says, “I was still out there doing normal student things and having fun!”
But when he started getting enquiries from further afield, he knew he was going to need help. One of David’s gripes about the dental course was the lack of business training, particularly as so many dentists go on to run their own practices, essentially setting up in business. Some of his lecturers sympathised with him but said there were ethical implications. “The course had to teach us how to fix teeth and not how to fix teeth with a view to making money, because it is NHS-based.”
As a result, feeling he could easily get out of his depth, he sent an email to the university’s business school looking for a suitable candidate. One of those who responded was Dan Keil, now a fellow director of UKloupes. “I interviewed them in the university café and Dan was head and shoulders above everybody else,” says David.
With Dan’s help the business started to expand. Their first stop was Bristol University, just up the road, where he admits to bringing in pizzas to tempt the students to attend the presentation. He laughs at the memory: “They’d come along, eat the pizzas, get their greasy hands all over the loupes and then leave.” They also entered and won a number of business start-up competitions, providing small amounts of investment cash, and got funding for a business mentor through the Wales Innovators Network.
Expansion has taken them into dental schools across the UK, where they have a number of sales agents helping to market their loupes. They also now sell internationally, with enquiries from the USA, India, Australia and all over Europe.
One early and extremely beneficial piece of advice, says David, was that they should put their prices up. The mentor felt the low price was sending the wrong message about the quality of their loupes. “So, even though we were only putting our prices up to about half that of our competitors, we probably doubled our profit margin!”
All the while they were expanding, both David and Dan continued with their studies. Then, after qualifying, David started his vocational training year in Cardiff. Once he’d completed that, he decided that not even his time management skills could cope with the extra workload. “I thought, this is getting a bit too much for me, what with answering emails and boxing up loupes at 11 o’clock at night.”
So while he remains a partner/director of UKloupes, Dan now runs the company on a day-to-day basis, leaving David free to work full-time as a dentist in Keynsham, while also taking a masters degree in implants at Bristol University.
Looking to the future
Clearly not one to sit on his laurels, David is looking to open his own dental practice in the near future and is also keen to launch a dental entrepreneurial competition – which he plans to call “Dragon’s Dental” – as one way of addressing the lack of business training in dentistry. “I’m also thinking of setting up a website with some dental business-related resources for young dentists, not just dental students. I’d like to give something back,” he says.
The whole UKloupes experience has been fantastic, says David, and even though he has broadened his interests, for now it remains the thing he’s known for. “I’m recognised as that dental student who sells loupes, and I’m not even a student,” he says, laughing. “I think that’s going to follow me, probably throughout my career. But that’s fine – you know. I’m proud of how UKloupes has turned out.”
Adam Campbell is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to MDDUS publications