Robotics for Healthcare: Announcing Our Partnership with Penn Dental’s Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry 

The Mack Institute and Penn Dental’s Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD) kicked off a collaborative research project exploring potential uses of nanorobot technology for oral health care. The interdisciplinary partnership brings together three students from different Penn and Wharton programs to study the commercialization of a new technology that detects and removes harmful dental plaque. 

“This initiative stems from our ambition to disseminate Wharton’s knowledge and expertise in innovation management among Penn’s inventors,” said Valery Yakubovich, Executive Director of the Mack Institute. “By pairing MBAs with clinical researchers and engineers, we aim to accelerate the process of bringing transformative health tech to the market and open up new career opportunities to Wharton students.” 

“Our main goal is to bring together dental medicine and engineering for out-of-the-box solutions to address unresolved problems we face in oral health care,” said Prof. Hyun (Michel) Koo, Co-Founding Director of CiPD and Professor of Orthodontics. “We are focused on affordable solutions and truly disruptive technologies, which, at the same time, are feasible and translatable.” 

The inaugural team is comprised of Chrissie Jaruchotiratanasakul, a DScD candidate completing a residency in endodontics; Hong-Huy Tran, an Engineering postdoc studying robotics and material science; and Manali Mahajan, a Wharton MBA student with career experience in strategy and operations. Their task is to develop a commercialization strategy for a micro robotics technology currently being developed in Prof. Koo’s and Dr. Steager’s labs. 

The technology to be explored in this project is a groundbreaking device that can treat, prevent, and even detect harmful bacteria. The researchers use tiny iron oxide nanoparticles, controlled by a magnetic field, to provide a complete dental cleaning. The process replaces brushing, flossing, and mouthwash in one easy, automated step that requires no manual effort on the part of the user. 

Koo says this technology could be crucial in clinical settings like hospitals and care homes, where research increasingly shows that oral hygiene is associated with overall health and general wellbeing, as well as reduced patient complications like pneumonia. Researchers also speculate that the device could have at home care market potential, suggesting it could help address low rates of compliance in brushing and flossing. 

“Oral care innovation has been stagnant,” explained Edward Steager, a Senior Research Investigator who works in collaboration with Koo’s lab. “Over the last 5,000 years we’ve gone from a ‘paintbrush’ for your teeth to an electric brush for your teeth. There’s not a lot of innovation when it comes to the mechanical aspect of oral care.”  

However, Koo says that, ultimately, he is most concerned about getting the technology to those with unmet oral care needs, like seniors and people with disabilities, and that reaching those populations is what motivates him to undertake this study. 

“There is a big gap to be filled and we have a lot of great ideas,” he said. “Many people could really benefit from this technology and it’s time we bring it to market. That’s why I’m excited about this collaboration.”