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3M prepares launch of Hoosier startup's toothpaste

December 22, 2008
Problem teeth run in Robert Karlinsey's family. Over the years, dentists have filled six cavities and put a crown in his mouth. They also inspired Karlinsey's doctoral thesis — and his ambition to be an entrepreneur. He conceived both in a dentist's chair.

Now Karlinsey's company, Indiana Nanotech, is growing faster than a baby's first incisor. In January, St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M will release "Clinpro 5000," a specialty toothpaste Indiana Nanotech developed. The slogan: "Winning formula makes every brush better."

Founded in 2006, the startup has two full-time employees and two more parttimers. Since inception, Karlinsey, 31, has raised $1.3 million from the federal government and the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund.

Karlinsey's innovation solves a problem common in dentists' offices. He developed a proprietary method of adding calcium to fluoride toothpaste. Calcium prevents tooth erosion. But unlike chocolate and peanut butter, calcium and fluoride don't go well together because they're usually unstable when combined.

Eventually, Karlinsey hopes to add calcium to other products, including mouthwash, tooth-polishing varnish and perhaps even throat lozenges, mints or gum. But that's all still to come. Regulatory approvals in the dental field often take years.

"Toothpaste isn't as simple as you might think," said Karlinsey, who won't share particulars on how he gets the ingredients to blend. "If you change anything, including the pigment, you need clinical data to show efficacy isn't compromised."

Located in Indiana University's Emerging Technologies Center — IU's business incubator on the Central Canal downtown — Indiana Nanotech is a spinout of Therametric Technologies Inc., another dental business with IU roots. Therametric's founder, Dr. George Stookey, had a hand in the original development of Crest toothpaste half a century ago.

Both Indiana Nanotech and Therametric are trying to tap the same huge dental market. According to the American Dental Association, the United States has about 180,000 active dentists. Average gross billings per dentist are $660,640 for general practitioners and $882,320 for specialists.

Current technologies that use both fluoride and calcium force dentists to apply the ingredients separately. And patients must endure five to 10 teeth-clenched minutes in the dentist's chair for them to work.

Karlinsey said that's why combining the two in one toothpaste is a breakthrough. Few people are willing to go through the slow calcium-application process outside the dentist's office. But most everyone brushes their teeth daily.

"3M is very excited about this new technology Dr. Karlinsey has developed," said Aaron Pfarrer, general manager of 3M's business division for preventive care.

3M plans to sell Clinpro 5000 through dentists' offices. Indiana Nanotech will receive royalties, as well as payments for manufacturing the calcium phosphate used in the product.

Karlinsey said he has similar deals with other corporations in the works, but wouldn't share details. Indiana Nanotech's business plan projects reaching $10 million in annual sales in just a few years.

The company is exactly the type of venture worthy of grants from the 21st Century Fund, said Bruce Kidd, the Indiana Economic Development Corp.'s director of small business and entrepreneurship.

That's because Karlinsey's discovery had a quick path to the market. And it'll be difficult for others to copy.

"This guy not only has an innovative product. He's got people pulling him into the market to commercialize it, which means he's going to create jobs here," Kidd said. "This platform technology has tons of other applications in the dental world. And the black magic of how he makes this product is not something that's easy to replicate."

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