For GumCare Companion, 2020 was supposed to be their year. After years of clinical trials, fundraising, prototyping and medical certification, their product, the Fluxion, was ready to hit the international market. Even though the future looks bright now, the journey hasn’t been easy. Co-founder and CEO Sophie van Dijk shares the highs and lows of her startup journey and discusses the sudden passing of her father and continuing his legacy in the middle of a pandemic.
Gum disease is the second most common dental disease worldwide. And most procedures dentists use to get rid of the bacteria are invasive and involve pain or discomfort. GumCare Companion developed the Fluxion, a non-invasive device to clean infected gingival pockets. The company was founded in 2017, by Sophie van Dijk and her father Johan van Dijk, who was a renowned professor, researcher and practitioner in the field of periodontology. The Fluxion is based on his patent.
How did you end up starting a company with your father?
“For more than 10 years I worked for a large multinational , mostly in the Middle East. However, I longed to be in the driver’s seat of my own destiny . In 2015, I was doing an international executive MBA and I realized that I had a passion for entrepreneurship and really wanted to be responsible and test the limits to what I can achieve. At the same time, my father wanted to commercialize his patent and I thought it was the ideal opportunity to start a company together, based on that patent.”
So a combination of your business skills and his dental expertise?
“Exactly. I had already helped him with the prototype development 15 years ago. My father was a periodontist ( specialized gum dentist) and he realized that a lot of his patients experienced pain when treated for cleaning the gingiva . So his research and patent was based on creating a painless way to treat gum disease and remove bacteria through vacuum and low pressure rinsing. He already had a few informal meetings with Carduso Capital for potential funding, but being a scientist, he needed to pair with a business executive."
“So I took care of the business side and developed a proper business plan, financial model and pitch.. We started having formal meetings with Carduso Capital and they decided to invest in our company so suddenly it all became very real. We were doing this, we now had our own company. But right after that, my father unexpectedly passed away.”
That must have been an incredibly difficult period.
“It was a real emotional rollercoaster. In the beginning, when I was invited to speak at events and interviews, I would try to avoid talking about losing my father/ business partner. But it would feel a little unreal to be talking about how great the company was doing, while avoiding the other personal part. So yeah, it’s been very challenging but it is also about continuing my father’s legacy.”
So where did things go from there?
“For a medtech startup, it’s a pretty lengthy process. Aside from design and prototypes, you need to conduct trials and get a medical certification before you can launch. When the product design was finalized, we found a great manufacturer in the Netherlands and went to China ourselves to find the right manufacturer for our disposables. The differences in China between factories are enormous when you look at the molding and the quality. Having been there on the ground saved us a lot of money and time and it really was a great experience too, except for the combination of a huge jetlag and eating a local delicacy: a 100 year old egg… haha.”
What was the medical certification and licensing process like?
“For most, it’s a lengthy and difficult process. It’s a daunting task with a lot of paperwork required, so we hired an expert to support us . I think about a week before the audit deadline, all communication suddenly stopped. I called and called, but no answer for a week. It turned out the expert we hired had a burn-out and on sick leave. Ultimately, we managed to get an extension and were able to get the certificate.”
And finally, after all that, you were ready to launch.
“We were, but selling a medical product in an international market is no easy feat of course. You’re essentially dealing with different healthcare systems and different sets of regulation,. But it’s also a very technical product , so it’s something you need to demonstrate. And you can’t exactly go door to door at dentist practices in different countries so you need to go to international trade expos and conventions. We were really excited, because we were going to show the Fluxion at the largest trade shows in the Benelux. The expo was supposed to be in late March 2020 and I think you can guess where this is headed…”
“Yes! And like I said, when you have a product where you need to show people how it works to help convince them, trade shows are essential. Of course we also didn’t know if dental practices would even remain open early on during the pandemic. I had also just hired new people for the team. Working remotely for account managers that are supposed to visit dental practices is obviously a huge and impossible challenge.. Hence we focused on the things we could do and influence and we remain optimistic.”
Damn… I really hope there’s a silver lining to all of this.
“There is, fortunately. Due to Corona, there was an increased focus on Aerosol and our product does not generate any aerosols. We found a major German distributor who was willing to work with us and sell the Fluxion for us in Germany. They already have a lot of experience selling innovative dental products like these and also share our vision, so I’m really happy with that!”
So the future is bright?
“It is. We’re gaining momentum in Germany and the Netherlands. The results are good and we’re getting good feedback too. And hopefully, when things get better next year, we’re going to roll out in more Western European countries, and then it’s onwards to other countries. In the coming years, we also plan to expand our scientific basis for the Fluxion”