Cover Stories
Of ventures and voyages

Simon McDonald is a self-confessed ‘serial inventor’, now building his second dental-related dynasty while positively impacting young Kiwis through the Hawaiki Rising Trust. Meet the man from Katikati who’s making a difference to so many lives.

By Glenn Baker.

There are three key words that sum up Simon McDonald’s personal philosophy. They are appreciation – “be grateful for what you have”; contribution – “to give your life meaning”; and focus – “on what you want, don’t be distracted by stuff you don’t want”.

He admits to hammering those three words into his mind as often as he can. He’s built his personal and business life around them; the end result, in what he has accomplished since emigrating from the UK 28 years ago, speaks volumes.

A qualified dentist with a masters in dental public health, Simon had met his first wife Jan, a Kiwi, in England, who convinced him that New Zealand was a better place to raise their two children.

He had enjoyed a promising career as a lecturer in the UK – however, there were limited opportunities to do the same in this country.

Simon became head of the Wellington Area Dental Service, before moving to Hamilton to continue his association with health services, only to be “restructured out of a job” thanks to the health services reforms of the 1990s.

Fortunately the call of dentistry proved very strong. In the UK Simon refused to participate in what he felt was an unethical NHS dental system there. But now, understanding how challenging the human mouth is, and the high standard of dental work required, he decided he was up for the challenge. He moved his family to Katikati in the Bay of Plenty to open his dental practice.

“I only planned to do it for five years, and meanwhile start another business to get me out of my day-job,” he recalls. “Being a clinical dentist isn’t really me, in fact, from what I could see it’s far more stressful than performing surgery in general. Dentists perform extremely detailed work on conscious patients over 70 percent of their work week, requiring enormous amounts of concentration. It was much too tiring for me.”

Simon was motivated to look at every procedure he saw in day-to-day dental practice as an opportunity to invent something better. He decided that a better ‘dental mouse-trap’ was the way to go, which addressed the rising popularity of the composite filling.

This was the genesis of Triodent – a company he started with $250k of capital, and in its first ten years earned more than $90 million in export earnings from its ‘V3 and V-Ring Sectional Matrix Systems for Class II composite restorations’.

To begin with it wasn’t exactly an overnight success. Simon experimented with different springs and bits of plastic in his basement, producing around 180 prototypes before he was satisfied he had the product right and it could be manufactured cheaply.

Building Triodent was a long process; looking back Simon can recall at least once or twice when the whole business almost fell over.

Getting his head around how the dental supply industry was a major learning curve. Simon’s strategy was to ask a lot of questions at trade shows, where he also made the bulk of his early sales (along with an early social media site called Dentaltown.com).

American Jim Hirsch, a renowned inventor of dental products whom he met at a show, not only provided advice vital to the success of the business, particularly around pricing efficiency, but also became a friend.

Never in his wildest dreams did Simon think Triodent would become as big as it has. Growth came so quickly he sometimes couldn’t manufacture product fast enough. “There were even times when we were forced to delay ad campaigns,” he remembers.

Katikati became, and still is, New Zealand’s dental capital. US multinational Dentsply purchased Triodent in November 2013 but still operates out of the same factory. Together with Rhondium, Simon’s latest venture, around 150 locals are engaged in the industry. No wonder then that Simon’s efforts are appreciated by the local business community, and that trips to the supermarket are often social occasions because he bumps into so many people he knows!

Dental-lab in a box
R&D was already well under way with the Rhondium venture when Simon sold Triodent; the sale provided the necessary funding to ramp things up.

Rhondium is the company behind the One Visit Crown (OVC), launched in late 2014 – technology that enables a dentist to customise pre-made crowns at the chairside; avoiding the expense of a CAD/CAM machine and delays caused by sending the work to a dental technician.

Simon had originally been approached by dentist Adam Doudney with a business idea involving the pre-made crown. What followed was an extensive product development process including special packaging and a new clinical technique. This time Simon had far more resources at his disposal, but progress was still slow, especially when it came to securing appropriate approvals and quality standards.

The OVC, which began shipping in 2015, heralds significant cost savings. Instead of paying $1500 to $1700 for a laboratory-made crown, patients pay just under half that price. Simon likens the OVC’s impact on dentistry to the impact modern shoe stores had on traditional cobblers.

In just 12 months the OVC has been adopted by 20 percent of dental practices in New Zealand. A key selling point is the fact that patients can now circumvent cheaper, but unsatisfactory, options involving large fillings and come away with a much stronger, longer-lasting treatment.

“There’re lots of people who were told by their dentist that they really should have a crown on that tooth, but just couldn’t afford it,” says Simon. “Now they no longer need to put it off.”

The OVC can now be sold in the US, Australia, Canada, Europe and a number of other countries. Some dentists are utilising the new procedure several times a week. Taking into account earnings per dental procedure, over time Simon can see the business becoming even bigger than Triodent. Six or seven hundred good customers will easily get them to break-even point, he says. “That’s very achievable. If we can replicate what we’ve done in New Zealand, the potential is mind boggling.”

Of course, Rhondium won’t be the end of Simon’s bright ideas. The self-confessed serial inventor, who inherited his “curious mind” from his father, a “tinkerer engineer”, and developed a love for science and technology from a young age, currently has some 120 patents registered.

Heavily influenced by lateral thinking guru Edward de Bono, Simon says he deploys a set of techniques to generate ideas.

“I sometimes find myself solving a problem while walking along the beach when I ought to be enjoying the scenery.”

Currently he’s working with other Bay of Plenty entrepreneurs to see if they can develop a School of Innovation and Design. “To teach others the techniques for coming up with novel ideas.”

“I see a gap in the development of innovation in New Zealand. It’s a funnel requiring thousands of ideas going in at the top, because only a few [ideas] make it to funding, and even less make viable businesses.

“Rather than wait for young entrepreneurs to appear with an idea and engage with them, I’d rather encourage the talent we already have,” says Simon.

Giving back
All cashed up from the sale of Triodent, at the start of 2014 Simon started looking for a philanthropic project in which to invest some of his time and money.

It didn’t take long to find one.

Author and friend Andrew Crowe asked him to review the draft for a book on Polynesian ocean voyaging. As the chapters arrived in his inbox Simon was “blown away” reading about the navigational exploits of Polynesian sailors who boldly sailed the Pacific Ocean to explore new lands in wakas using “one thousand year old technology”.

“It was an astonishing achievement,” he says.

Then, when asked to sponsor a young girl on the Spirit of Adventure sailing vessel, Simon came up with a bold idea for solving a problem. That idea involved purchasing the waka Hinemoana, donating it to the Hawaiki Rising Trust, and offering a similar experience for young people on a large ocean-going waka. He embarked on a mission to help youth believe in themselves and achieve a sense of belonging.

“For me personally, adolescence was a very difficult time,” explains Simon. “I had two parents who both suffered from mental illness, and my mother died in a mental hospital.

“Perhaps this gave me a special interest and empathy for teenagers who’re struggling to find the meaning of life and where they fit in.

“I’m also aware that many Maori and Pacifika youth feel disconnected from their whanau and culture since their parents or grandparents moved away from their homelands in search of work. “Unfortunately for some, this disconnection leads to tragedies such as youth suicide and destructive social behaviour.”

Simon’s dream for the waka venture is to help 14 to 18 year old participants gain that sense of belonging; that pride in their culture, while building self-confidence and self-esteem.

“I love how the waka represents the amazing heritage of Polynesians and their can-do attitude,” he says.

The Hinemoana completed two sailing programmes out of Tauranga in February and March this year. Simon, who sails his own “personal waka” (a 60-foot catamaran) hasn’t participated in the programmes but has been amazed by the response of the teenagers who’ve completed them.

“I remember meeting the waka after its last trip and the young kids were just buzzing!”

He’s encouraged by the increasing number of small businesses and organisations that have sponsored individual teenagers to experience the programme.

“I love how the waka represents the amazing heritage of Polynesians and their can-do attitude.”

“A ten-day voyage costs $1975 so we’re asking businesses to cover $1500 of that cost. We’re also looking for a major sponsor who will have naming rights.”

Also on the drawing board is a winter sailing programme in Fiji, which should also appeal to older people.

Simon admits to having a lot of fun and learning a great deal with the waka project, and has been pleasantly surprised at how it brings our different cultures together.

Looking to the future, the goal is to build the programme’s credibility and capability. There’s also a five-year plan to add another waka to the fleet so that the two can sail together.

No standing still
For Simon, the future of Rhondium is looking rather rosy as well. He can see the technology being sold worldwide and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for New Zealand. There’s no standing still on development either – as he points out, version one is not the end product. There’ll be significant improvements to the OVC to make the whole process even faster and easier for dentists. And while the material used for the crowns is already as strong as natural teeth, an even stronger material is in the pipeline.

“Version two and three are very, very exciting,” says Simon. “And once they’re ready, which isn’t far off, we’ll be in a very strong position to take on the world.”

Of course, success doesn’t just happen. As mentioned at the start of this story, Simon’s successful ventures owe much to his personal philosophy.

Regarding business, he’s never been a fan of those that sell individual items once and must find a new customer for every sale. His business of choice is the “printer and cartridge” model: an up-front sale that covers costs, and ongoing consumable sales that generate good profit. Triodent and Rhondium both fit that description.

“For me the ideal consumable product is one that’s [IP] protectable, high value, has a healthy margin, and is lightweight, and therefore inexpensive to ship overseas,” explains Simon. “Our dental products tick all those boxes. It also means you achieve a very high EBITA multiplier when the time comes to sell [the business].”

As for his philosophy on life – he explains that we all have a simple choice.

“None of us know why we’re here, but we all have a choice. Make others happy, and therefore ourselves happy – or make others miserable, including ourselves.”

Now there’s a no-brainer to live by, if ever there was.

Publishing Information
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