SINGAPORE -- For Natasha Chang, a 26-year-old who works in public relations, smiling had never come easy.
Ever since she was a teen, she was so self-conscious about her teeth that almost all of her photos from those formative years showed her with her mouth closed. But as the coronavirus pandemic kept her indoors -- and on video with colleagues and friends much more often -- she decided to do something about it.
Chang started wearing clear plastic braces, a discreet alternative to their wired cousins that have taken off among Singapore's youth as the pandemic has led to a boom in self-care.
Now, she smiles without hesitation.
Chang had previously put off wearing braces, until she started the regimen in October. The time was ripe since she has been spending more time at home due to the coronavirus, Chang said.
Chang went with the services offered by Zenyum, a local startup. Starting at 2,400 Singapore dollars ($1,800), Chang said the cost was affordable to someone like her, who is in the second year in her career.
A potential customer first sends digital photos of their teeth to Zenyum for a preliminary assessment. The patient must visit a Zenyum partner dentist personally for a full consultation, including X-rays, and a 3D intraoral scan. But after that, the process can be monitored by the dentist and the company through the app every 10 days. If no problems arise, the patient does not have to make frequent trips to the clinic.
Not only does Zenyum offer a convenient approach to orthodontics, people have apparently grown more conscious of how their teeth look due to the rise of videoconferencing.
Zenyum was initially unable to accept new customers for more than two months due to the fallout from COVID-19, but both its customer count and sales in 2020 exceeded the previous year's numbers in Singapore. In Asia as a whole, sales in 2020 jumped 400% over the previous year, partly due to strong growth in new markets Zenyum entered before the pandemic.
The clear plastic braces, which look like mouthpieces, are made with 3D printing. The braces are constantly replaced to promote and adjust the alignment. Unlike wire braces, the plastic braces are less noticeable and are easily removable. Align Technology, the U.S.-based company behind Invisalign braces, has led the market technologically.
Zenyum is one of a number of newcomers that offer options that are lower in cost and are more convenient. The market for mouthpiece braces will grow to $7.7 billion in 2027, according to German data provider Statista, nearly quadrupling over 10 years.
The companies are pouring resources into developing markets in Southeast Asia, whose economies are growing along with the rise of the middle class. Since 2019, Zenyum has launched services in places such as Thailand. Align established training centers for dentists last year in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.
Asian youths are passionate about investing in themselves and boosting the value of their personal brand, said Zenyum CEO Julian Artope.