Staff Sgt. Steven Walther ’13 is drawing on his military experience and business studies at Campbell University’s Research Triangle Park campus to manage his start-up business, which manufactures and sells a new toothbrush he invented.
Staff Sgt. Steven Walther ’13 got the patriotic itch, he says. He was 25 and working in sales in Raleigh, N.C.; his father, brother and two uncles were in the military; and the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I was a young, abled-bodied adult,” he says. So he joined the U.S. Army in 2005 and entered an accelerated training program for the Special Forces (aka the Green Berets). He eventually served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 as a medic.
In Afghanistan, he helped set up and operate health clinics and aid stations. That included providing dental exams to Afghans. “That’s where I learned about dentistry and about gum recession,” he says. And that’s what ultimately led him to invent and patent a new toothbrush: the “toof-inger brush.”
The “toof-inger brush” has a shorter and wider handle with finger grooves that make the brush easier to rotate and encourages users to apply less pressure when brushing their teeth. The brush, consequently, helps prevent gingival recession (or receding gums) and abrasion, which can be caused by over-aggressive brushing, says Walther, who started a small business -- F.T.G.G. -- to market, sell and distribute the “toof-inger brush.”
Currently, Walther’s brush is being piloted by a dental practice in Wake Forest, N.C.; and this fall, he began selling them on his company’s website. For each toothbrush he sells, he donates one to Missions of Mercy Dental Clinic.
At the same time, he’s using what he’s learning as a Master of Business Administration student at Campbell University’s Research Triangle Park to manage his start-up. “I couldn’t imagine a better situation to gain clarity and for checks and balance for what I’m doing,” says Walther, who left active duty, transitioned to the Army Reserves in 2011, and went on to work as a health care consultant in Chapel Hill, N.C., while completing a Bachelor of Applied Science degree through Campbell’s RTP campus in May 2013.
Walther spoke to Campbell.edu about the need for a new toothbrush, how his military experience is helping him as an entrepreneur, and why he has a passion for health care. The following is an edited transcript.
How did you come to see there was a need for a new toothbrush?
Throughout my service in the military, as a Special Forces Medic, I received training in general dentistry and practiced basic oral care while I was deployed to Afghanistan. Health care in Afghanistan is almost non-existent and they don’t have access to things as simple as water with fluoride in it, which helps keep teeth healthy. I had the opportunity to manage health clinics for the local population there and one of the major maladies I saw was bad teeth. I helped to educate the patients I saw on oral hygiene, and along with that I preformed several tooth extractions. These things set the stage for me to recognize an improvement for the toothbrush.
What could be improved?
A toothbrush can cause or contribute to gum recession with the constant irritation from brushing too hard. If we consider the physical aspect of brushing and relate it to holding a butter knife with our entire hand, we’d be able to bend the knife if we presseit down onto a table; but if we use just use a couple of fingers, the butter knife would probably fall out of our hands before it bent. Additionally, the way we grip a standard toothbrush triggers an aggressive behavior. Whenever we couple the desire to clean our teeth with the way we grip a standard toothbrush, we want to brush harder than is healthy. The thought process is: “If I brush harder, they’ll get cleaner.” Brushing teeth too aggressively can actually harm our teeth by causing gum recession. The unique aspect of the “toof-inger brush” is the handle, which works to prevent aggressive brushing.
When did you realize that toothbrushes could use a new handle?
The idea came to me while I was reading a book about body language. There was a section in the book that talked about the human subconscious and how it drives so much of our behavior. An example it used was how we literally brush away our gums, even though we know that is a bad thing to do. When I started to think about why we don’t just stop ourselves from brushing too hard I realized that the source of this issue had the do with the handle of the tool we use to clean our teeth.
When did you know that you had hit upon the right design for the handle of your toothbrush?
It took some time to get there. I first started drawing sketches of the brush in 2012, and then I went on to make a mock-up handle for this toothbrush using a wooden dowel and a dremel tool. After a few different versions and lots of saw dust, I settled on what the instrument looks like now. It was important for the handle to be comfortably griped while brushing at any angle. What really hit the homerun for me with this design is when I gave a functional prototype to a dentist I know and she jokingly admitted to being excited about brushing her teeth for the first time she could remember.
Where did the name for the toothbrush, “toof-inger brush,” come from?
I was trying to think of something that would be both catchy and informative, and then it just came to me. It’s a play on words. Two is an indication of how many fingers you hold it with and “toof” as a child might mispronounce the word tooth. I took a prototype to the North Carolina Dental Convention this past May and I was pleased with the response the design and name got from dentists.
What do you want to see happen with the “toof-inger brush”?
I’d love for the product to be offered in dental practices across the country. It’s an excellent alternative to any toothbrush for cleaning needs, but it offers more value for preventative care.
Are you working on other inventions or projects?
I have a few more ideas, but for now this one has my devotion and focus.
What did you take away from your military experience that has helped you as an inventor and entrepreneur?
Leadership and the invaluable experience of having to solve complex problems with little to no guidance.
What drew you to health care?
To be honest I was more interested in learning about engineering when I entered into the Special Forces Qualification Course. After doing well with an aptitude test, I received some “military encouragement,” otherwise known as a direct order, to pursue the Special Operations Medical Course. It was a great experience and I quickly fell in love with what I was doing.
What did you love about it?
It was very fulfilling. Whether you’re working to create a better quality of life for someone or, in a more serious situation, saving someone’s life, you’re making a difference.
After you left active duty in 2011, why did you attend Campbell’s RTP campus to pursue business degrees? Did you think about practicing medicine?
Practicing medicine was certainly an option I considered; there are even opportunities to become a medical doctor through the Army. However, I am motivated more by the idea of helping others through the business and operational side of health care.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Bennett Scarborough