Revisiting the trailblazing story of Australia’s beloved dental brand and company.
By Danny Chan
American astronomer Carl Sagan once remarked: “You have to know the past to understand the present.”
Looking back on 50 years of SDI, it’s impossible to appreciate the current success of Australia’s home-grown dental materials corporation without revisiting its humble beginnings – although to readers of this magazine, SDI’s storied past may well be industry folklore by now.
Still, it’s a fascinating account that continues to shine a light on the indomitable spirit of Australian innovation and entrepreneurship.
How it all began
In 1972, Jeffrey Cheetham started SDI from his home garage, simply because he thought that the services dentists were receiving in those days were less than ideal.
The single-use dental amalgam capsule was christened as the very first SDI product. Developed through repeated trial-and-error tests, SDI founder Jeffrey Cheetham would spend countless hours perfecting the mixture over the kitchen sink, getting it ready for the first crop of Aussie dentist customers.
Finding modest success with his maiden innovation, more home made products soon followed: tooth-coloured restoratives, plastic composite fillings and tooth whitening.
As the business started to expand requiring fresh injection of funds, the financially squeezed Cheethams remained undeterred.
“Well I used my personal finances,” Jeffrey recalls nonchalantly, in a video commemorating 50 years of SDI.
“My wife and I literally had to mortgage the dog.”
To help cut costs while making space for amalgam capsule production, Jeffery even had to move his daughter, Samantha, out of her own bedroom.
“She doesn't like being reminded about that,” he quips.
SDI’s current CEO and Managing Director, Samantha Cheetham looks back on that infamous episode as just another example of Dad’s “entrepreneurial mindset”.
Although she cannot remember her reaction being too young at the time, Samantha reckons her bedroom was “probably identified as the quickest and cheapest location for the expansion of SDI operations.”
“Ambition was endless, but money and time was in short supply,” she adds.
“Jeff had to order, organise and store imported materials in bulk – and then fill large production orders at short notice. I’m sure that if our original house had more bedrooms, each one would have been converted to a research, production or product storage room.”
In 1976, Jeff and his wife Pamela went on a trip that would forge the future direction of SDI.
Having only started their export business a year ago, the ambitious couple had already set their sights on a global market. However, the original plan to cultivate sales channels in England was quickly squashed by expensive air-tickets.
As luck would have it, Olympic Airways had a special deal flying to Athens, Greece. It was there that the Cheethams met someone by the name of Miltos Vitsaropoulos, who gave them their first big break to export SDI’s innovative capsules.
On the strength of that one trip, Jeff secured five distributors across Asia, and in 1980 decided he would expand into America.
By 1990, SDI had opened a tiny American office and secured distribution across Asia. Another SDI office followed suit, this time in the heart of European dental manufacturing, Germany.
Many developments occurred in the intervening years. Notably, SDI was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1985 and shifted its R&D facilities to Bayswater in 1990 to expand its manufacturing capacity.
That Australian dental company
SDI products are today sold in over 100 countries and the company exports 90% of the products it manufactures. That’s no mean feat, especially considering Australia’s geographical position.
“As Australia is so physically isolated from other export markets, export planning is crucial,” Samantha explains.
“The SDI manufacturing and logistics teams work in tandem to navigate customer order changes, regulation nuances and product refrigeration requirements. SDI aims to ensure consistent product quality and maximised product shelf life for all exports.”
The company’s well-oiled planning and export logistics team proved their mettle during the pandemic.
“Our international teams reported that SDI products remained in stock and available where other manufacturers faced rolling shortages,” Samantha adds.
In September 2022, the company was awarded the Victorian Exporter of the Year Award through the Governor of Victoria Export Awards Program. The award also acknowledges SDI’s achievements during the difficult pandemic years.
Proudly flying the Aussie flag wherever they go, SDI has always been a poster company for supporting local manufacturing.
“International dentists synonymously link SDI with Australia. When asked to describe SDI, many international dentists mention Australia within the first sentence,” Samantha beams.
“SDI strengthens this positive association, by featuring mini kangaroo and koala accessories within its international dental exhibitions. As Australia is seen as a trusted manufacturing location, SDI proactively highlights Australia as part of its communications.”
Reflections on turning 50
After leading SDI for 42 years, Jeffrey handed the reins of the company to Samantha in 2014.
Asked for the most valuable lesson learned as a company over the last 50 years, and looking back on her own 8 years at the helm, Samantha believes it’s their tenacity to insist on dentist-led innovation.
“Rather than develop products that copy the dental market, SDI conducts regular research with dentists to identify the key frustrations of dentists and patients,” she shares.
“SDI then combines its internal and external knowledge of material science breakthroughs to develop innovative products that solve real dental frustrations.”
Of course, the company has had its share of setbacks, which to Samantha, are all important lessons from which future opportunities may be gleaned.
In the early days of amalgam production, SDI released products “that were either too weak, or so strong that they would crack a tooth”. Another occasion in the early 2000s saw SDI prematurely launch the Riva range “without enough quality control, which also affected (their) reputation for many years to come”.
“SDI has learned from these previous mistakes and is acutely aware that reputation is built in decades but destroyed in moments,” she adds.
“We understand that dentists are vouching for us when they use our products, and we stand behind them 100%.”
New and upcoming releases
That unwavering assurance now stands behind every new offering, including the 2022-launched packable composite Luna 2 and the new amalgam replacement product called Stela.
Luna 2 is a new generation of BPA-free composites which has improved handling and colour properties, while also being more radiopaque.
“We’re happy to see most of our customers have eagerly switched over from the original Luna to embrace the benefits of Luna 2,” Samantha enthuses.
Part of full pipeline of products due for launch between 2023-2027, the new amalgam replacement product Stela will be released in early 2023.
“This tooth-coloured posterior restorative is both simple to apply and delivers very impressive strength properties,” Samantha notes.
Too many to mention
As the global dental company crosses the half-century milestone, it would be remiss of any Anniversary feature to forget mention of their massive product contributions.
SDI has given us brands such as the Pola range of tooth whitening; the Riva range of glass ionomers; the Luna, Wave and Aura ranges of composites and Zipbond, the universal adhesive.
SDI product users have benefited from a string of innovations over the last 50 years, and that would continue unabated into the future, Samantha assures.
“People know that we've been here through the cycles, we've been through the trends, and we can see what's coming,” she adds.
“We're planning to be here for the next 50 and 100 years.”