Up to 3.9 billion people—or roughly half the global population—suffer from untreated tooth decay. They don't visit a dentist regularly (except to get a tooth extracted). They're prone to aches and related sleep problems. Their brushing-and-flossing routine is minimal, or non-existent.
For people earning a few dollars a day, tooth brushes and paste may be an afterthought beside food and other immediate needs, so persuading them to look after their teeth may be difficult. That's why a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania is working on an alternative: A special chewing gum with added dental-hygiene benefits.
"The thing with gum is that you want it because it's tasty. The health benefits are almost extra," says one of the gum's creators, Josh Tycko. "Toothpaste is seen as extra expenditure for long-term dental care that is too far on the horizon to be thinking about when you're living on a small budget."
The project, called Sweet Bites, is an entry for the Hult Prize, a social innovation contest for university students. (This year's challenge is "Solving Non-Communicable Disease in the Urban Slum"). The students, who recently won a regional stage in Boston, plan to distribute a gum made with Xylitol, a synthetic sugar with proven dental benefits.
Ahead of the final presentations, they'll spend time in Bangalore this summer working on distribution ideas and meeting local partners. "For the pilot, we are partnering with an existing Xylitol gum manufacturer to do a private label run," says Spencer Penn, the leader of the team. "This summer is mostly about testing the concept: Do people like gum? What's the flavor palette? What price point makes sense?" If they win the full $1 million final prize, they hope to manufacture their own line.
There are already Xylitol gums on the U.S. market, like Spry, which is sold at Whole Foods. But that's probably too expensive for a slum in India. The question is whether the team can get the cost low enough and actually get people chewing. In theory, a "pull" like gum should be more attractive than pushing, say, a cheap toothbrush. That said, it's hard to imagine chewing gum is an equal replacement to a tooth brush. But only time will tell.