Heather and John McDougall, who are siblings, work in different fields and live in separate cities. He’s an industrial designer in Detroit, who helped design the Chevy Volt for General Motors. Heather, a law-school graduate, lives in St. Paul and has experience working on lobbying and fundraising campaigns, business plan analysis, and investor research. They do have two important things in common: Their father was a dentist and they share a passion for social entrepreneurship.
A few years ago, brother and sister merged their backgrounds with their passion and founded Bogobrush. Named for “bogo,” the “buy one, get one” acronym used by retailers across the country as a sales promotion, Bogobrush is a “buy one, give one” toothbrush. When someone buys a Bogobrush, the “give” is a free toothbrush sent to someone in need via a handful of community partners: Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis; Apple Tree Dental throughout Minnesota; Family Health Care in Fargo; Covenant Community Care in Detroit; and Good Samaritan Health Center in Atlanta.
A single toothbrush is $10. A yearlong subscription is $40 and the buyer automatically receives a fresh toothbrush every few months. Over the past year, the McDougalls have been promoting Bogobrush and presold enough units to justify a large order with their manufacturer. They’re currently waiting for an initial shipment of 10,000 brushes to arrive next month.
“This is a toothbrush you’ll care about, that feels good to use,” both from a tactile and an ideological standpoint, says Heather. In addition to its charitable component, Bogobrush is constructed from biodegradable bamboo. It’s also thoughtfully designed, a covetable objet d’art.
Bogo and social entrepreneurship
Dental care, which many people take for granted, isn’t always a given. In the U.S. alone, the statistics are daunting: More than 80 million people don’t have access to adequate dental care. But the problem doesn’t end there. Hundreds of thousands of plastic toothbrushes wind up in landfills around the country every year. Bogobrush is the McDougall’s solution.
The bogo strategy for social good isn’t new. The online retailer Toms helped pioneer the approach with its “One for One” program: When a shopper buys a pair of shoes or eyeglasses, the company donates a second pair to someone in need via its partners around the world. Toms recently expanded its online store to include Toms Marketplace, through which other social entrepreneurs and like-minded retailers can sell their goods.
While John was in college and Heather in law school, the siblings became interested in creating a business “to solve a community’s problems, not just for the business’s sake but the community’s sake,” Heather explains. They started by creating a company called Share Project, which provided the framework for Bogobrush. They also met with professionals and friends from varied backgrounds to brainstorm ideas around social entrepreneurship.
In part because of their dad’s influence, the concept of a socio-eco toothbrush “seemed like it was most in our wheelhouse,” Heather says, adding that the toothbrush is “something that people use every morning and night.” At the same time, the siblings realized most people don’t put too much thought into the design or purchase of toothbrushes.
“We wanted to create a new brand and bring awareness to an industry that there’s not a lot of excitement around,” she says. As a part of their research, the pair tested just about every toothbrush they could get their hands on — including existing bamboo toothbrushes. “We realized that innovation is pretty stagnant,” John says.
A revolution in bamboo brushes
An ecological, aesthetically pleasing, and functional toothbrush was hard to find. The gimmicky grips and handles currently common in toothbrush design “force your hand into one position,” John says. The siblings wanted an instrument that was easy to rotate in-hand to clean all the teeth, and would fit in anyone’s palm.
For design inspiration, they looked to professional dental tools and artist paintbrushes. They analyzed potential materials using a software program that calculates the environmental and social life cycle of a product. “If you’re just looking at whether something is recyclable or made out of natural materials, you’re missing a lot” of variables, he says.
Bamboo turned out to be the most eco-friendly material. Bamboo grows quickly and is easy to replenish; is naturally anti-microbial; and is extremely hard and durable, Heather says. John designed a sleek, cylinder bamboo form, with a head of soft bristles made of high-quality nylon.
In doing so, Heather says, “We stumbled on a small revolution in the way bamboo brushes are made.” Unlike other bamboo brushes, the Bogobrush requires precision CNC machining to produce its minimalist form. A watchmaker created the high-precision drilling template for the bristles. “Most bamboo toothbrushes have poor bristling, so we needed to work hard to improve that process and functionality,” Heather says.
‘Change that starts with a toothbrush’
While Heather and John have been eagerly anticipating their first toothbrush shipment, Bogobrush has received plenty of publicity in publications ranging from the Huffington Post to Uncrate, a digital magazine “for guys who love stuff.” Last week, the company competed on “Dream Big America,” a live radio show featuring startups. The episode also re-aired on Doug Stephan’s “Good Day Show.”
“We had fun pitching and the voting came down to the wire,” Heather says. “We did not capture enough votes to move on, but that’s okay. It was a good experience and good exposure.”
In addition to providing people with an eco toothbrush, John sees Bogobrush as a tool for “implementing a lot of the ideas we wanted to explore,” including disparities in obtaining proper oral care, social responsibility built into a product from the get-go, and creating products that “take care of society and the environment,” John says.
“Hopefully, we can create big change in the world,” Heather adds, “by starting with a toothbrush.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.