It was just about two years ago that Jake Winebaum (who had previously sold Business.com for $360 million) quietly launched Brighter.com, an online marketplace for discounted dental care. Within a few months, Winebaum and Brighter, which had launched with $5 million in its coffers, added another $8 million from Benchmark, Mayfield Fund and a few others.
The reason for this was simple: As data published by the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging showed last year, more than 130 million Americans are currently living without dental insurance. Even with insurance, a trip to the dentist’s office can be pricey; without insurance, it’s equivalent to root canal. As such, the need (and demand) for more accessible and affordable dental care is high — and getting higher.
Brighter has remained fairly quiet over the last year, as new startups like 500 Startups and SV Angel-backed HealthSouk have moved into the space in an attempt to bring affordable dental care to the masses, beginning with California. And today, Brighter followed suit with a service that targets the 40 percent of Los Angeles residents who are living without dental insurance and can’t afford those pricey visits.
When Brighter launched in 2011, it followed a familiar roadmap for startups focused on providing more affordable dental care, offering 20 to 30 percent discounts on care to users for free, while promising those who shelled out for its $80 premium platform access to even larger discounts of up to 60 percent. With its new service, Brighter is now claiming that anyone can get better rates on dental procedures — at up to 50 percent off standard rates — for free.
The company started by building out a network of dentists nationwide, in attempt to build a kind of Progressive Insurance price comparison site, or ZocDoc listings, for the nation’s dentists. But to provide real discounts and actually bring service to the uninsured, Brighter realized it had to narrow its focus and bite off a smaller piece of the pie. This means that, starting today, Brighter.com members can compare and select from over 350 (fully vetted) dentists in Los Angeles. Not only that, but Winebaum said that the team soon realized that, if it really wanted to make a difference, it would have to slough off the subscription model and go for broke. In other words, they’d have to go free.
So, the dentists currently listed in LA are listed at pre-negotiated prices that are “comparable to those secured by large insurance companies, but without the premiums and complications of insurance,” Winebaum says. Now, instead of charging users a subscription fee to access these discounted listings, Brighter is now charging the dentists to list their procedures and services on the platform.
Brighter gives each dentist an SEO-friendly profile on which they can list their procedures, location, background, qualifications and degrees, accompanied by an introductory video from Brighter and Yelp reviews. The idea is to make local dentists easily searchable for users, while giving dentists an easy way to list their qualifications and availabilities. Dentists negotiate lower prices for each procedure in hopes of attracting those in need by offering lower prices than the next dentist. The idea is to attract customers who are willing (and able) to pay up front for discounted dental services, without having to worry about filing paperwork, claims and all of the time-consuming stuff that comes along with insurance.
For dentists, this should provide an easy way to market their services, to be found in pre-qualified dentist-specific searches, and get credit for offering discounted service to those who need it. Plus, Brighter integrates with dentists’ scheduling software (like ZocDoc mentioned above), making it easy for them to list times, book appointments and fill vacancies. Or so the thinking goes.
Of course, without insurance being a bigger part of the picture, a lot of responsibility falls on Brighter’s vetting process. If one quack falls through the cracks and starts doing low-quality procedures that cause more pain or require patients to return again and again to the dentist’s chair, the trustworthiness of the platform begins to disintegrate. Of course, some of this can be prevented by making it easy for patients to view dentist ratings (and provide their own feedback), but a few bad seeds trying to game the system can spoil the game for everyone.
To its credit, however, Brighter is confident enough about its extensive vetting process for its certified dental providers that the startup is offering its members a money-back guarantee on all appointments made through the service. At least it’s putting its money where its mouth is, and that’s worth a lot in the early stages.
Brighter is one among a handful of startups and more established players looking to bring greater transparency to the health insurance market, including bigs like Castlight and startups like HealthInReach and SimplyInsured, for example. For the dental market, Brighter was competing with services Careington, First Dental Health and DentalPlans.com, but services like these are still largely relying on the subscription model.
Thus, when it comes to dental platforms offering free alternatives that eliminate those annoying monthly fees, that leaves Brighter alone with HealthSouk to duke it out in California and, going forward, the rest of the country. And, if these startups live up to their claims, the more successful they are, the better it will be for the millions of Americans currently living without dental insurance.