Paul Varga, Founder of Playbrush. In the toilet at UCL. 28/5/15
© FT

Persuading children to brush their teeth can be as difficult as coaxing the little darlings to stop using an iPad. If only there was a way to use the latter to convince the young ones to do more of the former. It was this reasoning that brought Paul Varga, Matthäus Ittner and Tolulope Ogunsina together to transform toothbrushes into gaming controllers.

The idea came to Mr Varga in 2013 while observing the behaviour of his three-year-old godson, whose parents would amuse him during bedtime rituals by playing YouTube clips on their iPad.

He was thinking about this when he bumped into school friend Mr Ittner at the Pioneers Festival, a digital start-up conference held each year in their home town of Vienna.

Mr Ittner, who was back in Austria after completing a masters in international management at IE Business School in Madrid, liked to tinker with electronics, so offered to try and turn Mr Varga’s online device idea into a working prototype called PlayBrush.

Network benefits
Mr Varga had recently completed an MSc in technology entrepreneurship at UCL in London, where he had met Mr Ogunsina, whose experience as a software engineer made him an obvious choice to develop an app to work with Mr Ittner’s toothbrush.

UCL Advances, the university’s centre for entrepreneurship, lent the PlayBrush team money to create a saleable product from their first attempt at a device, which consisted of a brush attached to a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, called an Arduino. The centre also provided desk space for Mr Varga to work from.

Electric performances
The first version of the PlayBrush has now been successfully tested on more than 250 children aged between three and 13, the vast majority of whom were “reluctant brushers”, according to Mr Varga. These tests managed consistently good results in improving teeth hygiene throughout the cohort.

Team structure
Mr Varga is the only full-time employee on the team, as Mr Ittner and Mr Ogunsina are holding down other salaried jobs until further funding enables them to join PlayBrush permanently.

IE has provided a network of both willing investors and potential customers from among Mr Ittner’s fellow alumni, as well as mentoring support from faculty staff.

“It is amazing how such a network has helped,” he says, noting that out of the 100 students he contacted, 90 replied with tangible help for the fledgling company.

This included a blogger with 30,000 followers, who offered to promote the device in some of his posts.

Such publicity has come in useful as the founders have launched a crowdfunding campaign for PlayBrush on the Kickstarter platform, which beat their target of raising £35,000 to fund the first batch of customer orders.

Brushing to win
The product being offered for sale looks much like a conventional toothbrush but has a small microprocessor unit with motion sensors fitted in the base and the ability to connect with a smartphone or tablet device via wireless Bluetooth technology.

Children are encouraged to clean carefully in order to win games on the device their toothbrush is connected to. This kind of “gamification” has been a popular theme of technology start-ups in recent years, working on the assumption that people will do all manner of things if there is a contest in it.

Paul Ashley, head of the paediatric dentistry unit at the UCL Eastman Dental Institute, is a fan of the product.

“It’s important that kids learn about brushing habits and oral hygiene early in life — particularly that they brush everywhere and for two minutes each time,” he says. “PlayBrush seems like a fantastic way to encourage [this].”

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