Bogobrush: A Biodegradable Toothbrush for the Socially Minded
Heather and John McDougall, two kids from North Dakota, grew up watching their dentist father throw himself wholeheartedly into his profession, serving on the boards of state and national dental associations. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when the McDougall kids decided to launch a company, it ended up being a toothbrush startup.
But Bogobrush is not your ordinary toothbrush. Its handle is made of bamboo and is biodegradable, so when you’re finished with the toothbrush you can pull out the bristles and throw the handle on the compost heap . But perhaps the best part of Bogobrush is that for every toothbrush that’s sold, one is given away to a free or low-cost dental clinic in Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, or North Dakota. (The name Bogobrush comes from the acronym “buy one, give one.”) Heather McDougall says that approximately 80 million Americans lack access to adequate dental care, and this is one way to help alleviate that need. The Bogobrush was designed by John, who has kept his day job as a designer for GM. Heather, Bogobrush’s CEO, is working from St. Paul, MN, at the moment, but hopes to soon join her brother permanently in Detroit.
Since the McDougalls launched Bogobrush about a year ago with a splashy public relations and pre-order campaign, they have pre-sold 8,000 toothbrushes online. “Kickstarter turned us down because of the philanthropic component,” Heather explains. “So we built our own website to establish our brand the way we want to. The brushes are now in production and we hope to ship them out by Christmas.”
Getting to this stage hasn’t been easy. The Chinese supplier the company worked with to create the Bogobrush prototype wanted the McDougalls to place an initial order of 50,000 toothbrushes despite agreeing earlier to a 10,000-toothbrush order. After what Heather describes as “two months of midnight calls to China,” Bogobrush was able to work with the supplier to get the initial run quantity lowered. “The success of the pre-order campaign convinced the suppliers to come back down,” she adds.
Then, there was the issue of the bristles. The only truly biodegradable bristle material was animal hair, but that wasn’t commercially viable. Plus, it proved to me more abrasive to tooth enamel than traditional bristle materials. “We decided we’d rather have a really good toothbrush than a marketing point of 100 percent biodegradable,” Heather says.
Bogobrushes can still be pre-ordered through the company’s website before distribution starts in December. They cost $10 apiece or $40 for a yearlong subscription, which includes a new Bogobrush every three months. So far, the company has been able to finance much of its operations through the pre-sales and a small amount of angel investment. The next goal is to get Bogobrush on the shelves of retailers like Whole Foods. “First, they need to see the product rather than the prototype,” Heather explains.
Bogobrush does have a relationship with the Kaufman Foundation, which nominated the company a few weeks ago to compete in the Dream Big America contest. Sort of a radio version of “Shark Tank,” startups compete on a syndicated program for a chance to win $20,000. Although Bogobrush didn’t advance to the finals, Heather is still grateful for the experience. “We had fun pitching, and voting came down to the wire,” she says. “In the end, Bogobrush didn’t gather enough votes to move on, and that’s OK. It was a good experience and good exposure.”