Paul Johnson’s ‘little light project’ finds way into COD clinics
When Paul Johnson walks through the clinic where his fellow dental students are working, he can’t help but notice the shine from his Genesis dental headlights.
“It’s pretty humbling to see my headlights scattered about the clinic,” said Johnson, a fourth-year dental student. “It’s very flattering to see that students trust me, that they know that I will give them a good light, and that I will fix it if it breaks.”
Johnson estimates that 20 percent to 25 percent of his UNMC dental student classmates have purchased his headlights. He says his satisfaction comes not from the number of headlights sold, but rather from the sense that he is creating something his colleagues consider useful, now and in their future dental practices.Johnson designed and built the Genesis LED headlight system two years ago after discovering the high price of dental headlights on the commercial market. He sells his headlights at a discounted price for students through his website, www.johnsondentallabs.com.
“Within one year, I have gone from sticker-shocked student to proud inventor of a product designed for quality and affordability,” Johnson wrote in the draft of an article published about his project in the April 2012 issue of American Student Dental Association News.
In a recent interview, Johnson said, “At first, I just wanted to see if I could put the light together and see if it worked, but my classmates encouraged me to keep on going with it to put together a commercial product that they could use.
”Feedback and moral support from fellow dental students, as well as faculty and family, including his wife, Molly, kept him going as he developed and refined the LED headlight, custom mounting bracket, and special filter that are part of the Genesis system, he said.
His father, Dr. Geoffrey Johnson of Brookings, S.D., Class of 1978, assisted with the final design; helped incorporate the company, Johnson Dental Laboratory, Inc.; and provided business advice.
In his first year of dental school, Johnson said he was shocked when he set out to purchase a dental headlight and discovered the price ranged from $500 to $1,200 with student prices starting at $400.
Convinced he could build his own headlight for far less, he visited a Radio Shack store to search for the necessary electronics and a hardware store to purchase brass tubing. He figured out the battery system and the lighting system in one night, but it took him hours of research on optics, electronics, engineering, CAD (computer-aided design), and 3D printing to create a reliable and economical product.
“I had the confidence that I could build something myself that would work just as well” as the high-priced commercial dental headlights, but “my research took in a lot of different disciplines to bring everything together,” he said.
Some of the challenges, he said, were dealing with delays in parts arriving from China, discovering how to make the headlight compatible with the wide variety of loupes, and creating his own custom bracket using CAD technology. He currently is working with a professor in optical engineering in Arizona and an electrical engineer in New York to develop more advanced products.
Coming from a long line of dentists, Johnson said his headlight project has shown him that he is a good fit for the life-long learning, methodical approach, and patience dentistry demands. He would like to study periodontics after graduation, and he sees himself continuing with this “knack for exploring new technology and figuring out ways to make it happen” throughout his dental career.
Other dentists in the family, in addition to his father, are his sister, Dr. Anne Johnson Harris, ’06, and her husband, Dr. Christopher Harris, ’03. Both practice in Brookings with the senior Johnson. Paul and Anne’s grandfather, the late Dr. Max Johnson, also was a dentist in South Dakota.
“I plan to practice dentistry and just seeing where this little light project takes me,” said Johnson.