This post was originally produced for Forbes.
James Hagen admits his health wasn’t great while working as a hedge fund analyst. The stress and a chronic disease diagnosed as a kid left him looking for answers.
When his parents decided to retire from their catalog dental supply business, he recognized the old catalog business needed to be converted to an e-commerce model and hoped to find a lower-stress environment. He decided it was time to head for home in Minnesota.
His research into better health, not surprisingly led him to focus on diet, exercise and sleep. Then, attuned to the dental industry, he began finding evidence that better oral care can improve whole-body health.
He decided to launch Boka, an oral care business that would focus on overall health.
Having helped found the nonprofit Surge, Hagen wanted to do more than make a profit. He wanted to make a difference. Not only is he hoping to improve the health of his customers, he has already started supporting Surge’s efforts to improve access to clean water for the 800 million global citizens who lack it.
“When I started Boka it was really important to me that a modern brand or company was addressing some of these global issues,” Hagen says. “I think it’s becoming more and more important for the private sector to step up and have an impact.”
The business is already profitable, has five employees and generates a gross margin of 55%.
“Oral care is the most important problem in preventive health that isn’t being considered as such,” Hagen says.
Dr. Vladana Babcic Tal, endodontist and partner at Cameo Dental Specialists in Chicago, advises Boka. She says, “We haven’t seen much innovation in toothpastes or oral health products. The same toothpastes that were on the shelves when I was a kid are still there now… but our needs are changing. I notice my patients becoming more and more involved in their overall health. They want to know what they are using, they want to be involved in the decision making. Most importantly, patients are finally focused on preventative health. Boka is a product that understands the strong connection between oral and systemic health. Patient’s want to avoid cavities as well as periodontal disease, which has shown a connection to heart health.”
Boka’s mouthwash product, Cocorinse, typifies Hagen’s approach to product development. He eschews alcohol-based products as both harsh on the mouth and gums and for unnecessarily killing the good bacteria in the mouth along with the bad. He’s trying to debunk the old industry mantra, “If it’s burning it’s working.”
Cocorinse is made of coconut oil, mint and a nano-technology developed by NASA called nano-hydroxyapatite that remineralizes teeth better, he says, than fluoride. The use of coconut oil as a mouthwash may go back thousands of years as an Ayurvedic practice in India. “It’s really nature and traditional medicine coming together with contemporary medicine,” Hagen adds.
Boka has used a similar philosophy to create a natural toothpaste with “science-backed” ingredients.
Like alcohol in mouthwash, Boka rejects fluoride in toothpaste. Hagen is careful not to take sides in what has become more of moral debate than a scientific one about the effectiveness versus the risks of the classic toothpaste ingredient. He says Boka omits fluoride simply because the nano-hydroxyapatite works better.
Babcic Tal says, “Boka’s toothpaste is a great alternative to fluoride toothpastes as it is able to remineralize the enamel without risking potential toxicity connected to fluoride products.”
Hagen says he’s learned some important lessons along the way. Chief among them is this: “Smile at everything that comes your way.”
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