Former dentist Dr Anthony Lovat founded UK-based Opro in 1997 and is now a leading pioneer in oral protection, the company claiming to be the world’s most technically advanced mouthguard company.
Opro’s turnover is £6 to £7m while the Hertfordshire-based outfit has around 30 staff and has launched the world’s first instant custom-fit mouthguard.
Dentistry is an unusual environment to learn from someone in a practice as you usually work alone. But Roy Berger was someone I looked up to and learnt from – not that he ever knew it.
I would sometimes eavesdrop outside his surgery and what and how he was saying things to patients. Roy was very clear and people understood what he was saying. Everybody looked up and admired him, and it was from him I learnt about the art of communication.
Coming in as a fresh dentist, the biggest lesson I learnt was not to go out and try to convince someone of something, but just teach them about it. If I had educated someone about having a crown in their tooth, with a bit of bluff I would have soon convinced them. Roy’s mantra was about educating first.
It was a lesson I took forward in starting Opro. In the beginning, the best thing I could do was not to try and convince people to use our service, it was to educate them on the value of mouthguards and its benefits from a medical and legal perspective. This was where the company really took off, as I listened to the reaction of the teachers I spoke to. The main concerns were whether they would be in line to be sued if something went wrong and what was the best way of protecting themselves by protecting their kids.
When I went to work for Roy, it was my first job after dental school in 1981. He had practices in Harley Street and Crouch End and I was an associate in the latter, with six surgeries. When I later became a partner, my entrepreneurial skills came to the fore when I said we should grow to more than two practices and with 20 dentists working for us. My role was to look after the enterprise.
Yet, as a dentist I didn’t like sitting in a small room hurting people and so it led me to setting up Opro (shorthand for oral protection) in 1997.
Where you are trying to disrupt an existing market, getting a message across and educating underpins everything. The key to success was getting things wrong in the first place. Curiously, this was very helpful. I wrote to hundreds of schools and received a response from one – Roger Uttley at Harrow School. The interest was huge, as 150 boys turned up for impressions.
I immediately decided to use an outside laboratory and there was no other place which could handle the volume.
I knew how mouthguards were made generally, but I wanted to deconstruct and reconstruct as a production line. There were 20 distinct steps and just by teaching someone one step you could then mesh them together without having to educate anyone hugely about what they were doing. They would become very proficient inside a day or two. During busy periods, like September for the start of school terms, we take on a lot of students and give them small steps to master for the month they are with us.
Mouthguards weren’t worn in schools when Opro started. Nowadays it is largely mandatory. We also now embed electronics in the mouthguard before sending them back to players and athletes, the data being collected appears powerful and is starting to show the way as to what may be the cause of concussion. That’s the holy grail here, being able to pinpoint when a concussion will happen. But we aren’t there yet.
What a mouthguard offers is the only place on a head which can effectively lock down some immovable chips to give accurate data. We are seeing mouthguards in all sorts of areas outside the main combat sports, the stick sports, rugby and the NFL. We are also seeing an interest from downhill skiers, the diving world – measuring the impact a diver has on water entry – and in F1, with the forces occurred by the drivers.
I think Roy realised my entrepreneurship and desire to deviate from what I was doing was strong. I don’t think it came as a huge surprise when he found out I had left dentistry to go off in a different direction.
I had spent five years learning to be a dentist and 15 years practicing. I didn’t know I had an entrepreneurial streak until I jumped ship and started Opro. As time went on I began to realise I could be more creative in this environment than I perhaps imagined.
Twenty five years ago, I asked a friend whether I was mad or clever in starting Opro. He told me to ask him in a year. Yes, I rolled the dice and it turned out okay, but not without some bumps in the road. You often learn more from things which fail than with any successes.
Dr Anthony Lovat is the founder of leading mouthguard provider OPRO, who have recently launched the world’s first Instant Custom-Fit mouthguard. For more information visit www.opro.com
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