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A Winning Floss-ophy

Rana in dark blue scrubs taking notes on an electronic tablet
Sohail Rana noticed a trend in patients while studying at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. He saw that patients often selected the cheapest treatment options instead of best-quality treatments.

“I didn’t feel that was fair for the individual who is really driven to maintain their oral health. I wanted to develop a way where we could catch problems much earlier and make people aware of the dangers of tooth decay,” said Rana, a fourth-year student in the school.

Since he started seeing patients during his third year at Pitt, Rana and colleagues have been working on ways for people to practice better oral hygiene habits at home to avoid costly visits to the dentist’s office.

“The issue isn’t the toothbrush itself; it’s people not using their brush and floss on a regular basis. One out of three people floss regularly. That’s a lot of people who don’t floss,” he said.

ZeroDK, the group’s startup company, is currently beta testing a new smart toothbrush holder that connects to a smartphone app. The app tracks users’ brushing and flossing behavior and provides a score. Users earn rewards for better habits and get feedback on ways to improve their health.

a sleek white device with four holes
“And you don’t have to buy special toothbrushes or floss. Dollar-store brushes work with the holder,” Rana said, who has also taken courses in Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.

“One thing taking courses there (Katz) has taught me is incentives change behavior, so why can’t we ‘pay’ people to brush their teeth?” he said. “We’re in talks with insurance providers in terms of providing incentives. For tooth decay, it’s insurance that’s paying for treatment. If not insurance companies, then parents could save time while teaching great behavior for their kids through this app.”

ZeroDK has been entered into various competitions, both in and outside Pitt’s campus. The team was a grand prize winner in the 2019 Pitt Challenge and won third place in the Big Idea Blitz. The project participated in the Big Idea Center’s Blast Furnace Accelerator and the Forge Incubator. Previously, ZeroDK was a finalist in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition and a winner in IBM’s BlueHack.

“Sohail is really smart and driven,” said Stephan Mueller, an entrepreneur in residence at Pitt’s Big Idea Center who has spent the last 25 years in the technology startup ecosystem primarily in senior leadership roles. “He’s coming up on graduation soon, so he’s at a fork in the road on whether this is an investment or a project. He seems to be on the path aligned with business.”

Mueller added market potential could be opened up for ZeroDK with one niche market: children.

“When you look at other brands, they don’t usually make smaller sizes for kids,” Mueller said. “In terms of dentistry, you can make the most positive change by creating the right habits with children. That opens the market up.”

Along with Rana, ZeroDK also includes Muntaser Syed, co-founder and graduate research assistant at Florida Institute of Technology; Adrian Reitars (ENGR ’19); Zachary Colimon, a sophomore mechanical engineering student in the Swanson School of Engineering; and Sahara Muhina, a junior computer engineering student in the Swanson School.

The app will be available on the App Store and Google Play later this year, but people can sign up to beta test the app at ZeroDK.com.

Got a good idea?

Applications for the 2021 Randall Family Big Idea Competition are due Feb. 19 by 11:59 p.m. 

The virtual competition is an opportunity for University of Pittsburgh students to bring their ideas to life with the chance to accelerate their innovations to commercialization. It is open to all Pitt undergraduate and graduate students across all schools and departments. The competition is hosted by the Big Idea Center in Pitt’s Innovation Institute.

This competition spans February and March of each year and awards a total of $100,000 in cash prizes to winning teams, with a grand prize of $25,000 given to the team with the most startup promise. Teams must consist of at least two Pitt students. Students from other institutions may participate as part of a team, but cannot receive monetary prizes. Apply now.