It’s a fantastic experience to take something from employee number one and grow all the way now to 75 people spread throughout the country, where everyone is contributing great ideas, and everyone is really passionate about how to make things better and take the next steps.
When Alon Mozes was a kid growing up in Miami, Florida, he was sure about one thing: No way would he ever follow in his father’s footsteps and become an endodontist.
Mozes kept that pledge. But as fate would have it, he didn’t stray all that far. In fact, Neocis, the company he co-founded in 2009 with his business partner Juan Salcedo, is helping transform dental implant surgery with a breakthrough robotic-assisted guidance system.
When it comes to dental implants, precision is everything. The robotic device invented by Neocis, called Yomi, allows dental surgeons to keep their drill angles on target throughout patient procedures and implant teeth more quickly with less risk of complications from extensive surgeries.
Since the first Yomi came rolling off the assembly line last year, the system has been used to help more than 2,700 patients. As of this writing, it remains the only robot that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared for dental implant surgery.
We spoke with Mozes about an entrepreneurial journey that began in computer graphics and image-guided applications, and also features an Emmy awarded for inventing an application for real-time sports broadcast graphics.
Q: You grew up in Miami Beach. So, what’s your favorite sports team — Dolphins, Marlins, or the Heat?
Big Heat fan. But even though I grew up in Miami, I actually grew up as a New York Giants fan. I was born in New York City and my mom was a native New Yorker. So, the Giants became my pro football team and still are today.
Q: Are you a beach guy or a nerd?
I was definitely on the nerdier side in high school. But it was a pretty normal suburban lifestyle and Miami had a very diverse culture. It’s a different kind of diversity than what you have in San Francisco or Boston. It’s also very laid back and a lot less intense than other, bigger cities.
Q: Good point about the laid-back aspect — except when it comes to driving around there.
You just get used to it. You’ve got a weird mix of people on the road. You’ve got tourists who have no idea where they’re going. You’ve got the elderly, who are sometimes painfully slow drivers. And then, you’ve got young kids just flying down the highway, weaving in and out. So, yeah, it can make for a challenge on the road.
Q: I understand that your parents were professionals. What did they do for a living?
Yes, my mother was a cancer research scientist, who went to MIT and got a PhD. My father was a dentist. They actually met when she was in Israel, and he ended up going to dental school at NYU. They got tired of the winters in New York, so once he graduated, they came down to Miami so he could start his dental practice.
Q: Given what your company is doing nowadays, did the dental field hold any particular attraction for you when you were younger?
I never thought I would be doing dental. I spent maybe all of one afternoon in my father’s office while he was doing a procedure drilling into a patient’s mouth. It wasn’t pleasant. I swore that the one field that I was not going to enter when I grew up was dental. Yet, here I am.
Q: Life moves in strange ways. We’ll get into that in a moment, but did you give much thought to what you might do later in life or were you just taking things one day at a time?
Back in high school, I did a summer program at Brown University where I really got into computer graphics. Pixar had just released some of its really short films and I was just wowed by all that stuff. The idea of combining the artistry and visual arts with the technical side of computer graphics and computer programming really intrigued me. That’s what ultimately led me to MIT and the media lab over there.
Q: Apropos, during your time at MIT, a summer internship left you with some very firm ideas about where your future definitely would not be. Can you tell me about that?
That’s right. It was my freshman summer and I was thrilled to have received an internship at Intel. I remember my first day on the job and I was wandering through this maze of cubicles. Now, I’m not a tall guy and was actually a little shorter than the cubicle height. For me, it was literally like being a rat in the maze. Of course, I got lost and barely found my way back to my cubicle. And that was just one floor of many floors of several buildings on the Intel campus. And I was like, no, this is too big.
Q: And what about the work?
I enjoyed the technical side of the job. Then I found out at the end of the summer that all the work I had done on the next Pentium chip ended up getting scrapped. And not just my work, but the entire division, involving hundreds of engineers — they had decided they weren’t going to need that project. It was just disheartening to be in that kind of bureaucracy and see all your efforts go to waste. That’s when I told myself that it would be startups for me from that point on.
Q: After graduation, you left to work in animation and special effects. What was the appeal?
A lot of folks were going into startups at the time. This was right around 2000. I didn’t want to do something trendy. I wanted to do something that was going to be really technically challenging. I loved computer graphics and I met the team at Sportvision. To this day, these are some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. It was just such an interesting, innovative technology company and so much fun. As a sports fan, right, it was an extra bonus. It was funny. Most of the engineers didn’t really care about sports. We had all these people going to the Super Bowl and they couldn’t have cared less — whereas for me, it was a thrill.
Q: Something sure clicked. While you were there, you won an Emmy for developing a baseball pitch tracker that was adopted by ESPN. How did that come about?
That’s right. ESPN decided that for the upcoming baseball season, they wanted a technology that would track a baseball thrown by pitchers, showing where the ball crossed into the strike zone. It had to be completed within four months. I was part of a small team with three co-workers, developing the technology. At the time, there was another project going on at the company for NASCAR, involving something like 20 engineers and took over a year to complete. We both got nominated for the Emmy for the same category at the same time. To our surprise, the baseball project won. The next day in the office was a little difficult. I ran into more than a few frustrated and disappointed fellow engineers. Still, it was a lot of fun.
Q: Interesting foreshadowing since the special effects focus also paralleled the technology that later found its way into your work around robotic surgery.
That’s right. When you track a football or baseball field, as the camera moves, you also need to make sure that the effect stays with the video in the way it’s supposed to. For example, the yellow line you see on TV during football games stays on the football field, even as the football field moves across the screen. The cameras have sensors with encoders that relay information back to a computer about how the camera is moving and where the field is. We use the same approach in robotic surgery. You’ve got to understand where the patient is at all times. So, the robot has to be able to move in accordance to make sure that the surgery goes according to plan. You have very similar kinds of sensors and very similar kinds of math and software. It was a very natural transition.
Q: I was jumping ahead. Before doing your own thing, you worked as a software engineer at Mako Surgical. And you got your PhD at the same time. I suppose you didn’t get much sleep.
Yeah. It was a busy period but also good training for building a company. I really wanted to be back in Miami, so I went to the University of Miami for my PhD and within a year I got connected with Mako’s founder, who also was a U of Miami alum. I needed to find a PhD project and I knew image registration and all those algorithms and techniques inside out from working for five years before going back to school. So, they were willing to fund my research and would get the results of the project. It was a win-win for everyone. The company got a professional engineer; I got a stipend from the company and would graduate with my PhD and still be working.
Q: When did you begin thinking about the concept of a dental robot?
It was around 2008, where I was going to work all day and writing my dissertation at night. On weekends, I was brainstorming about the robot and next steps with Juan, my future partner.
He knew the mechanics around how to build a robotic system. I was much more on the software side and knew the graphics, the imaging, the registration, and all the algorithms that go into it. So between the two of us, we decided that we could come up with a system.
Q: How did you decide upon focusing on dental?
It was pretty high on the list because I had connections to clinicians through my father and understood some of the dental space. Initially, we started in endodontics where you’re basically filing out a canal but don’t want to replace the tooth yet. It wasn’t a great fit for robotic surgery because the way our technology works, you have to have rigid structures — if anything moves, you can very predictably track where it moves. If there’s anything that’s soft or deformable, it doesn’t work so well. In endodontics, you have very soft tips kind of finding their way through the canal. So, we were hoping it might be adaptable, but we really couldn’t find a way. Then we saw a web broadcast by a surgeon in Miami showing off plastic surgical guides and how he could do an implant case which was very analogous to what was being done in orthopedics; where we came from, you have robotics versus these patient specific instrumentation — basically, plastic guides.
And we watched this demonstration, where the dental surgeon was supposed to do upper and lower full arch in four hours. So, four hours go by and he’s still working on the upper arch and now he is struggling. He knows he’s on camera and he’s cursing up a storm, throwing instruments around. And that’s when we kind of had our “aha moment.” Dental surgeons think they have a high-tech solution, but they don’t. And we realized that our robotics would fit very well with this kind of procedure.
Q: Do dentists and dental specialists tend to be early adopters or are they more conservative when it comes to technology?
It’s a wide field. There’s the average dentist you visit when you need a cleaning or cavity filling. They have the reputation for being slower to adopt new things. Then there’s the other side of the profession that’s doing dental implants or more advanced surgery — specialists, oral surgeons, periodontists, and even some general practitioners also doing more advanced procedures, right? They’re the ones that will buy a cone-beam CT scanner that can cost $100,000 to $150,000 but gives them a great three-dimensional image to guide them through the procedure.
Q: Do you envision Yomi’s future as a standalone product or longer-term? Is the idea to continue to find new applications for robotics in dentistry or related areas of healthcare?
We really see Yomi as a platform. We started off with implants. And that’s a great market, but there’s so much more opportunity. For example, think about full arch surgery, which is not just a couple of implants, but a whole arch getting replaced with implants as the foundation. We can continue to expand into complex surgeries, such as when they’re reconstructing the whole jaw to be able to change a patient’s openings for sleep apnea or severe underbites or overbites. And that requires putting plates and screws in exactly the right spot. Robotic guidance is fantastic for that.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have general dentists doing procedures, like tooth preparation, where you have a tooth that’s a decade past the point where a filling is useful, but you don’t want to lose the tooth entirely. You want to drill around the surface of the tooth and replace it with a crown. The tooth preparation for a crown can be very tedious and time consuming. And it really requires artistry to do it. It’s those kinds of procedures where you can leverage all this great digital technology like robotics to make it more automated.
Q: How long does it take to get professionals up to speed on using Yomi effectively?
We’ve got a great training program where we’ll train them for about two days and encourage them to do roughly 10 to 20 cases as quickly as they can. Once they’ve got that cadence going, they’re off and running. It’s not a very long learning curve. We’ve had some sites where after five cases they say, `Hey, we’re good. We got this.’
Q: Who is Yomi, by the way?
When we were first starting out to investigate what part of the dental industry would be a good match for this robotic surgery, we got a lot of help from a close family friend, Dr. Yohama Lorenzo, who I’ve known since I was a little kid. She was our family general dentist and taught us everything about dental implants and the industry, and she connected us to other clinicians. And she really was just doing it to help. So, when it came time to name the product, we named it in her honor. Yomi is how she’s known to all of her friends and family and patients.
Q: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of running a startup?
It may sound cliché but honestly, it’s about the team. It’s so exciting to see people grow in their roles as the company succeeds and really celebrate the successes together. It’s a fantastic experience to take something from employee number one and grow all the way now to 75 people spread throughout the country, where everyone is contributing great ideas, and everyone is really passionate about how to make things better and take the next steps.
Q: Flipping it around, what’s been the toughest thing for you to master as the CEO of a startup?
There are a lot of challenges, but I think that the emotional ups and downs are really a lot to handle. For instance, you get FDA clearance ahead of schedule, which is fantastic. You want to celebrate, and then you have a major issue with a supplier overseas. Oh, by the way, now you also have COVID and supply chains across the world becoming problematic and maybe you have to terminate or furlough people that had been working just fine.
Q: You mentioned COVID. What’s it been like trying to work through a pandemic?
Initially it was a big concern, but I give credit to the team. We were able to pivot and tighten our belt to make sure that we would have enough funds.
We also were able to offer webinars and got a lot of attention for what is an exciting technology. That let us reach an audience that we wouldn’t have otherwise reached. As a result, we had record sales — and during a pandemic of all things. Now we’re seeing record utilization numbers due to our labor, even though it was done in difficult times.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a manager through what obviously has been a very difficult period?
These challenges do build character, not just for myself, but I’ve seen it on my leadership team. And some employees who are on the younger side have learned to adapt to challenges they hadn’t ever faced. Personally, I had to grow as a manager as well as a leader in the company and learn how to communicate clearly to our team.
Q: On the personal side, a few wrap-up questions. What’s your favorite book?
Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Q: What is your most beloved movie?
A cheesy answer, but I do love ‘The Godfather.’ Great, great business management techniques.
Q: Do have a motto that you’ve adopted over the years?
Yes. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I’m a big believer in that. It always takes a team and you need everybody on the team to be the best of the best.
Q: Who’s the one person that’s most influenced your development as an entrepreneur?
Rick Cavallaro, my first business mentor at Sportvision. He had such a great way of managing. It’s always something I think back to. I’ve had other great managers as well as some who were terrible. It taught me how management can be done well and how it can also be done poorly.