A chance discovery of a clinical paper has led to the development of a new app which aims to overcome the two biggest barriers to seeing a dentist – cost and time.
The team behind Pearlii was a double category winner at Generation One’s inaugural Dream Summit in Sydney which saw more than 80 of Australia’s most talented Indigenous entrepreneurs converge for two days of mentoring and personal development.
Pearlii founder Dr Kyle Turner was born in Dubbo, rural New South Wales, and grew up with “shocking” teeth.
“We were very poor, and when you’re fighting to get food on the table, dental checks are a pretty low priority,” he said.
The Wiradjuri man was set to study medicine at university but met Canberra Population Health expert Dr Jill Guthrie, a fellow Wiradjuri, who encouraged him to consider instead working in prevention.
“Jill told me doctors see people at the end of the conveyor belt but working in prevention and epidemiology can help people at a population level.”
Kyle is now a Public Health Lecturer at the University of Melbourne after completing a PhD at Oxford University.
While living in the United Kingdom he tried his first start-up, a healthy food delivery service as a competitor to Deliveroo.
“It didn’t work out … but I learnt so much about building up a business,” he said.
Part of his work at the University of Melbourne involves regular travel to Western Australia to assist with a large dementia prevention trial in older Aboriginal people.
During a trip at the end of last year he picked up a newsletter outlining recent developments in Aboriginal health, including an article about a University of Western Australia study which armed Aboriginal health care workers in remote areas with smartphones to help diagnose teeth issues.
The study found diagnosis by a dentist from the smartphone photographs, in the right conditions, was on par with an in-person visual diagnosis, and it sparked an idea.
Nine months later and following extensive surveys and testing, Kyle was ready to pitch the new screening tool, Pearlii, which uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology to scan photographs of teeth, taken with a smartphone, to check for dental issues.
Once released, Pearlii will provide people with access to a free, fast, and safe at home dental check-up, no matter their income or personal situation. The start-up makes generates revenue through various referral pathways, such as booking a dentist appointment.
Users simply upload five photographs of their teeth and fill in a short oral health questionnaire, which is then fed into a machine learning algorithm that creates a risk profile based on their data.
“Users will then be advised if they should seek dental treatment, as well provide oral health advice tailored to their results, and we highlight the consequences (e.g. future treatment costs) if they don’t improve their oral health behaviours.”
“For example, the new technology zooms in on the dental images and shows users exactly where they need to be flossing and brushing better – it’s quite a powerful thing when you’re looking at photos of your own mouth.”
Kyle said the technology’s accessibility was a major feature.
“You just need a smartphone and an internet connection to make Pearlii work and receive a free dental check-up,” he said.
“One of the big appeals in particular is its application in rural and remote communities that generally have pretty poor access to health services.”
“Our aim for Pearlii is to become a global leader in dental screening and education and make a big impact in underserved communities around the world.”
Kyle said his involvement in Dream Summit would help take his idea to the next level. Pearlii was awarded the Austrade ‘Landing Pad’ prize, as well as one of the EY Growth Accelerator Program prizes.
“I’ll be honest, I went into the Summit with a bit of a deficit mindset. I’ve done heaps of start-up competitions and events like this in the past and many of them are not worth the time it takes away from working on your business, but this was such a positive event, it was really well run and the calibre of the mentors was really high.”
“You had people participating who really knew what they were doing and at the other end some young fellas who were attending their first start-up event and were just sponges.”
“There was something for everyone at Dream Summit. It was a really special event.”
Kyle said the resulting exposure to business contacts and potential investors meant Pearlii was poised for rapid growth.
“Once we have the investment we need in the door, we will go to work and aim to get to market in Australia within six months post-investment.”
“After we have some traction, we will try and raise our Series A round to take Pearlii overseas, first to the United States of America where they too have many underserved communities.”
“This is where we will be able to begin to leverage our Dream Summit prizes to get introductions to investors and mentor networks.”
“I’m determined to do this start-up right and, so far, we seem to be on the right track.”