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Thursday, February 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Woodinville company makes dental gear for developing world

Seattle Times business reporter

After a fifth of Jamaica's population was left homeless by Hurricane Gilbert, Dr. Eric Shapira arrived as part of the relief effort and set up his portable equipment in a former Peace Corps clinic.

His Jamaican patients, as in other places where dental care is rudimentary, "naturally assumed that when they came to the dentist they were going to lose their teeth," said Shapira, a Montara, Calif., specialist in cosmetic and geriatric dentistry.

But when word spread that Shapira could sometimes fill teeth rather than remove them, a line formed down the block.

"I had a new portable unit which the previous dentists who came there didn't," he said. "Thanks to the equipment, I was able to do dentistry and I helped a lot of people."

Such stories are gratifying to Doug Kazen, founder of Aseptico, a Woodinville company that holds a leading position in the niche market for portable dental gear.

Dentists like Shapira take the equipment and their skills into remote villages in the developing world as well as into nursing homes, military field settings, prisons and cancer wards — all places where people may not be able to get to the dentist, "and yet they often need dental treatment for a little bit of comfort or function," Kazen said.

Aseptico fits the essentials of a dentist's office — drill, vacuum, air and water syringe, air compressor — into a self-contained package the size of a large briefcase, weighing under 30 pounds. The unit sells for around $2,500, and the company offers discounts to nonprofit groups.

Dentists who travel to remote jungles and disaster-ravaged communities tell of patients whose only remedy for a painful abscess may be to break the tooth with blunt force. They'll refer you to Tom Hanks' use of an ice skate blade for that purpose in the movie "Castaway."

"Aseptico has really fulfilled a great need that dentistry has for portable, light-weight equipment that you can set down anywhere in the world and do modern dentistry," said Dr. Ron Lamb, founder and president of World Dental Relief, which outfits dentists for mission trips to more than 80 countries.

Stricter airline weight limits and other logistical challenges complicate travel for dentists using heavier portable equipment.

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Older kits could easily exceed 220 pounds, including a compressor, drill kit and folding dentist's chair, said Lamb, a dentist in Broken Arrow, Okla., who has backpacked into the Amazon to practice dentistry.

Aseptico claims to be the world's largest manufacturer of portable dental equipment — and competitors and customers interviewed for this story agreed.

Lamb, who wrote a book on portable equipment and buys from manufacturers around the country, said Aseptico is one of few that stocks enough inventory to sell units off the shelf.

It's tough to quantify Aseptico's market share, however, or the total size of this "pretty well-hidden niche," said Tom Meighan, director of sales at DNTLworks Equipment, a company outside of Denver that makes portable equipment exclusively.

"You are dealing with a fairly small pond here compared to mainstream dental equipment," said Meighan, who agrees Aseptico is the largest portable manufacturer.

The entire dental-equipment market will be worth an estimated $4.8 billion this year, according to Business Trend Analysts.

Kazen said the company is "very profitable," has no long-term debt and is "well up the scale" of U.S. dental-equipment manufacturers in terms of revenue, though he won't disclose specifics.

He founded Aseptico on $20,000 with his wife, Edyie, 30 years ago. Still family-owned and operated, the company has just under 100 employees and is growing, he said.

Aseptico began designing and manufacturing portable equipment in the early 1980s, after Kazen developed a water-purification system originally meant for stationary dental equipment.

Kazen, who studied dentistry at the University of Washington for two years before becoming a pharmacist, found little demand for the system until a dentist suggested he make it the basis for a portable unit.

"We were one of the very first companies to begin to offer portable equipment to the dental profession," Kazen said.

Today, portable equipment represents between 35 and 40 percent of the company's business, including large contracts to supply the U.S. military. That product line even includes a portable field sink in Army green.

Other products include equipment for root canals, dental implants and electric motors that can turn up to 40,000 times per minute.

Aseptico has 15 engineers working to develop the next innovation ahead of its competition.

"We're breathless to get our products finished and on the market," Kazen said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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