2012: No shortage in toothbrush patents
NEW YORK, N.Y., USA: Forget the mousetrap. If you want the world beating a path to your door these days you might be better off trying to build a better toothbrush. If you built a better mousetrap in 2012 you were in small company, with just eight patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for devices or improvements containing those or similar words in the title (rat, rodent, trapping, etc.).
If you came up with an idea for a better toothbrush, though, you were part of an army of inventors. More than 150 patents issued in 2012 contained the word "toothbrush" or some similar variation of it in the title, bringing the grand total of toothbrush-related patents in the U.S. to more than 4,600 since the first toothbrush patent was sought by H. N. Wadsworth in 1857 (framed copies of the patent are for sale on www.amazon.com for $99).
A glance through 2012 toothbrush-related patent titles reveals a wide variety of efforts: “dehydrated dentifrice and toothbrush,” “combination toothbrush and peak flow meter system,” “processing method for taper of needle shaped bristle enhanced throughput,” “round toothbrush bristles and processing method thereof,” “motorized toothbrush tip having inner and other (sic) heads counter around different axes,” “siwak tooth cleaning instrument,” “oral hygiene case with dental floss lid compartment,” “tooth cleaning apparatus” and — along the same line of creative titling as that last item — many of the patents are simply titled, “Toothbrush.”
The toothbrush patents cover two general areas: utility or design. “Utility” patents involve a new or improved process, material or composition. “Design” patents have more to do with appearance alone, with no real advancement or change in purpose or use.
In a National Public Radio story Dec. 27, reporter Joe Palca interviewed several of the 2012 “toothbrush” patent holders, ranging from big-corporation product developers to independent dentists and hygienists working on their own time after hours, with minimal research-and-development funding backing them up.
All of the patent recipients interviewed by Palca referenced similar motivation behind their efforts: trying to get people to take better care of their teeth. But a number of the efforts go far beyond that, such as the dual-purposed toothbrush and peak flow meter patented by Dingane Baruti, MD, a physician in Columbus, Ga.
Toothbrush helps monitor asthma
Baruti’s abstract for the device describes it as a “system for increasing the compliance of peak flow measurements in children and adults with asthma.”
The patent application for the asthma monitoring toothbrush notes that peak-flow readings ideally should be recorded at the same time every day, but children frequently don’t comply because the meters are often misplaced or forgotten. Baruti posits that linking the flow-metering task to a daily tooth-brushing ritual — by attaching a toothbrush head to double the meter's purpose — will help increase compliance.
The device also would be wireless, automatically relaying the readings to a hospital or doctor’s office. Baruti, a principal with Dingane Innovations, is actively marketing the licensing to insurance companies under the brand name “FlowBrush.”
Contacted via email, Baruti wrote, "The FlowBrush is the central feature of the FlowBrush Asthma Surveillance TeleMedicine (FAST) system. I am leading a team of MBA students from the University of California San Diego, Rady School of Management, to bring the FlowBrush/FAST system to market."
Bristles designed to hold toothpaste
Another invention, the dehydrated dentifrice and toothbrush" is described as having “one or two part-spherical pockets formed in the brush surface. Balls or pellets of matching shape of dehydrated toothpaste are placed in the depressions, the brush is wetted and the pellets turn to a gel, ready for brushing. The pellets may be of various colors and flavors to entice children to brush their teeth and may be dispensed from a storage chamber carried in the tooth brush handle.” The inventor is Joshua D. Atkin, a general dentist in Dayton, Ohio.
The "siwak tooth cleaning instrument" is depicted in its patent application as a mechanical concept that “provides a carrying, protecting and application instrument for a siwak stick, to be applied to the user’s teeth for cleaning thereof.” The inventors are Faleh A. Al-Sulaiman and Muhammad A. Hawwa of King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The instrument dispenses circular toothbrush heads based on lipstick-tube-style mechanics from a container that can be incorporated into the handle of the siwak (a type of toothbrush used primarily by Muslims).
Toothpaste delivery, too
Falling a bit outside the “toothbrush-related” theme, but also patented in 2012 are “toothpaste droplets.” Inventor Wayne R. Solan of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., came up with the idea as a way of providing people with safe, correctly-measured doses of toothpaste for brushing, minimizing the health threat that can come from accidently swallowing unsafe amounts of toothpaste, as well as minimizing waste.
A summary in the patent application for the droplet concept includes these details about one of the design possibilities:
“The method can include providing a droplet that can have a dissolvable outer membrane that defines a volume with toothpaste inside the volume. The outer membrane can include a tail portion, which is configured to be embedded into the bristles of a toothbrush. The provided droplet further can include a plurality of extensions coupled to the outer surface of the outer membrane where the plurality of extensions can have a triangular shape, a barb shape or the like. In one aspect of this embodiment, the droplet further can include a logo, a cartoon character, a word or the like printed on the outer membrane.”
Few patents become products
The odds of any of us soon using freeze-dried balls of toothpaste, lipstick-style brush-head dispensers and precisely measured droplets of toothpaste sporting cartoon characters are likely slim. Earning a patent is just one small step in an arduous journey from idea to actual product.
“You see far more patents than products,” patent attorney John Rizvi said. Rizvi, of Gold & Rizvi (The Idea Attorneys), based in Fort Lauderdale, has been helping inventors with the patent process for 16 years and specializes in medical/dental products. He got into the dental niche because his wife, a dentist, kept referring colleagues who had great product idea.
Beating out the next-best solution
Rizvi’s advice for would-be dental-product inventors: “Cost of the product is critical. You can have a new concept with all sorts of advantages, but if the costs are out of line with alternatives, you’re facing an uphill battle. You’re always up against the next-best solution.” Rizvi also said, “The product needs to be intuitive, something that the user can quickly understand the need for — especially if you don’t have the resources needed to market it.”
But even with most intuitive of products, marketing is critical in any effort to turn an idea into units sold. That’s why many inventors sell their rights to a deeper-pocket partner. Rizvi advises “garage inventors” to study the market to find out who is selling the closest related product and then contact that business. If it sees your idea as a threat, it might want to buy the concept to control it — or add it to its product line.
As with most inventions, the odds of success are stacked against dental-product inventors, with only a miniscule percentage of patents materializing into widely available products. But a stroll down the dental aisle at the super market reveals new oral-care products that break through every year, and even more “latest-and-greatest” oral hygiene concepts can be found online, such as the “dissolving tetrahedral toothbrush package” (it’s worth a Google search, if you haven’t seen it).