Puneet "Dr. Fresh" Nanda, is a consummate dental innovator, with 38 dental patents to his credit. That's helped his oral hygiene company, Dr. Fresh, become a leader in the children's dental care market, with successful products like the FireFly Toothbrush -- which features a light on the handle to let kids know how long to brush for, and has inspired spin-off products like FireFly Mouth Swoosh and FireFly Toothpaste.
Believe it or not, Nanda actually got his nickname long before founding his $60 million oral hygiene company, fitting as it may be now. His friends from college first dubbed him "Dr. Fresh" when he asked the dean's daughter on a date.
After attending college in India, Nanda ran his father's toothbrush manufacturer company in New Delhi, before branching off to create his own oral hygiene brand. He moved to Russia in 1991, to capitalize on the product demand there, then returned to India in 1995, before settling in the United States in 1998 to focus his efforts on creating children's toothbrushes.
"It was a niche area I thought I could develop," says Nanda, 42. "Kids get excited about innovation, whereas for an adult, a toothbrush is a toothbrush. It made more sense."
But as Dr. Fresh grows up, Nanda is expanding to the grown-up market, as well. His expansion efforts include acquiring brands like Binaca to add adult oral care products to the Dr. Fresh line.
How did you get involved in inventing oral hygiene products?
I wanted to get involved in something that was being utilized by someone every day of their life. What is the first thing you do when you wake up? You wash your face and brush your teeth. Toothpaste is a very brand-oriented item. But when it comes to the toothbrush, brand is not as important as the quality. So I decided, this is a chance where a novice like me could jump into a developed market and still do pretty well.
How did you come up with the FireFly toothbrush?
When I was in the U.S., my little daughter, who was 4 years old, was very fascinated with the light-up shoes that we'd bought from some shoe store. And we had to go to my friend's daughter's birthday party and she just wouldn't go because she couldn't find one of the shoes. And I said, "The way you are so fascinated with the shoes, I should make you a light-up toothbrush and you'd probably want to brush every day for much longer." So she got excited and said, "Dad, could you make me a light-up toothbrush?" I said, "Yeah, I could try."
[After making it], she asked, "Dad, can I go and brush right now?" and I left and came back 10 minutes later. She asked, "Will this light ever turn off or should I brush my teeth off?" I decided I should be making a light-up toothbrush with a timer on it.
Where do your ideas come from, since you keep inventing new products?
I do a lot of store checks. And it's a little bit of a natural instinct as well, because I'm always on the lookout, thinking, "What else can we do that I personally might need?" And I talk to a lot of kids. I talk to people a lot. Believe me, a lot of moms who are facing issues with kids could be your best resource if it's a kid-related product. Also, I get together with three or four dentists, and they tell us what their patients have been demanding.
Every year we run "The Dental Inventor Contest" in every school district in America. These young kids come up with a lot of ideas and we take the time to go through thousands of product ideas. Basically, out of the competition, we see where there is a need and there might be a product, but they're not doing it perfectly well. And we see if we can do it. I just try to get issues out of people and then I see there is a need there, and ask, "How do I address this need?"
When you stopped being a one-man-show, did you worry about delegating?
Truthfully, it was very, very difficult. Because I somehow felt that if I don't do it, it's not going to be perfect. But as you find the right people who understand you, it gets easier. If they're not 100 percent, then you have to look for the 100 percent people who can take charge. And once you start getting those right people, delegation becomes much much easier. I'm still doing a lot of [inventing] myself. But the moment I can find somebody, I would be more than happy to delegate that job responsibility and just oversee the entire operation.
Name: Puneet Nanda
Company: Dr. Fresh
Location: Buena Park, Calif.
2010 Projected Revenue: $60 million
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 7/26/10.