Brace Yourself, Brackets Are Changing at the Speed of Light

October 2, 2019
Dr. Alfred Griffin sitting in front of a computer

In a brick building in Cambridge, a stone’s throw from MIT and Harvard, sits the headquarters for a company poised to shake up the orthodontic bracket market. Inside, engineers work intently at their computers while 3D printers hum on the manufacturing floor below producing the world’s first fully-customized, 3D-printed brackets. The startup, LightForce Orthodontics, is the creation of Harvard School of Dental Medicine alumnus Alfred Griffin III, MMSc17.

“A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every patient,” Griffin said. In an era of personalized medicine, he saw the potential for a more effective bracket that could give orthodontists better control over the patient’s outcome by providing a patient-specific prescription.

“Our custom brackets unlock new biomechanical possibilities that haven’t existed before. Biomechanically it makes sense and should offer a more efficient treatment based on a customized base,” he said.

3D Ortho software
Griffin demonstrates software that is part of the 3D bracket system
Dr. Griffin is a bit of an unlikely entrepreneur, who might have been sitting at a lab bench at this point in his career rather than networking with venture capitalists. He had intended to pursue scientific research in developmental biology at HSDM after completing a dual DMD/PhD in craniofacial biology from the Medical University of South Carolina. Grant funding fell through, so Griffin pivoted and took a different path in his Orthodontics residency.

“In orthodontics today there are many opportunities to apply new technologies and move faster than the established companies, but few take the risk,” he said. “HSDM’s residency program is not a ‘cookie cutter’ approach. What’s nice about Harvard is you can explore many career options.”

Griffin sought out resources available to him as an advanced graduate education student at Harvard to develop his initial business idea. He was accepted into the Harvard innovation labs’ Venture Incubation Program (VIP), a program designed to help all Harvard students pursue entrepreneurial ventures, where he received business and legal advice and learned how to take the next steps to file his first patent.

“As a part of the broader Harvard community, HSDM presents opportunities and access to global experts that is rare for a dental school,” he said. “Based on my interests, I was encouraged to take master’s classes at Harvard Business School, meet world business leaders at the Harvard innovation lab, and connect with engineers at the Wyss Institute. That’s quite unusual for an orthodontics residency and a big part of how we were able to successfully launch LightForce.”

A bracket under a microscope
3D printed bracket under a microscope
Griffin took a “Commercializing Science” class at Harvard Business School with MBA students that helped him create a business plan and pitch his idea. From there he applied to MassChallenge, an accelerator program for Massachusetts startups. Competing against other finalists, Griffin won initial funding to get his business off the ground and attracted the attention of venture capitalists which helped him secure additional funding.

“We realized we needed to move fast,” he said. He credits being situated in Boston for helping to propel his business. “Boston is a global leader in healthcare technology. We have premier hospitals, the most competitive dental and medical schools, and talented clinicians.”

Griffin assembled a dream team of talented individuals with backgrounds in science, biomaterials, engineering, and dentistry to help launch LightForce. He also relied on the support of his family—both of his parents are dentists—as well as HSDM faculty and his co-residents.

“I was lucky to have a great support structure,” he said.

The next step for LightForce will be validation of the product’s efficiency. An Institutional Review Board approved clinical trial is now underway at HSDM with Mohammed Masoud, DMSc07, assistant professor of Developmental Biology and advanced graduate education program director for Orthodontics, serving as principal investigator.

“The Orthodontic program at Harvard gives students the freedom to pursue their research passions and encourages collaborations with outside entities. It makes the program proud to see Alfred fully take advantage of that opportunity and run as far as he has with his idea,” said Masoud.

As a new cohort of students starts this summer with hopes and dreams of their own, Griffin’s advice to them is, “Follow your passion. Harvard is an incredible platform to do many things; take advantage of the opportunity.”