10 Questions with Isolite's Tom and Jim Hirsch

January 28, 2013

A conversation with the brothers who co-founded Isolite Systems.

A conversation with the brothers who co-founded Isolite Systems.

1 Isolite Systems recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. How did the company get started?

Tom: It was 1984 and I had recently purchased several fiber-optic handpieces. I loved the light, but I kept rolling my chair over the fiber optic bundle and rendering it useless. So after breaking my sixth bundle, I started thinking, Why is the light source over there? I’m going to put a light inside the mouth. So I called up my brother, who was just starting his industrial design career, and told him I wanted to put a light in the mouth.

Jim: I was fresh out of industrial design school, so I knew everything and could do anything [laughs], so I said, “Sure, I can do it.”

2 But the first Isolite came out quite a few years after that, right? 

Jim: It took us 15 years to start up commercially, because the materials and manufacturing techniques we wanted to use were cutting edge and not yet commercially available. I further developed and refined the Isolite design slowly during that time.

3 The Isolite mouthpieces are a unique invention. Did you start with a one-piece mouthpiece?

Tim: The original design had three pieces, but a patient of mine who is an inventor told me that to be successful, we should strive to make it all one piece. That proved to be difficult.

4 How challenging was it to create the one-piece Isolite mouthpiece?

Jim: It was frustrating and expensive, because we needed three new molds every time we tweaked something. By 1999, I had downloaded the three designs into a CAD program and in frustration one day, I opened all three files and hit “merge.” I then had a physical model made and showed it to Tom. He placed it in my mouth and said, “It’s perfect.” That was the moment we knew: This is the product. This is a winner. 

5 And then you launched?

Tom: We launched at the CDA meeting in Anaheim in April 2002. We had no advertising. No one had ever seen or even heard of the product, and we got 66 orders. But a dentist friend pointed out that the light would cure composites and asked what we were going to do about it. I said, “Turn off the light.” He suggested adding a filter, so we did. 

6 What was the impact of that? 

Jim: It meant redesigning the whole thing, so suddenly we were getting orders for something we didn’t have. Thank god the product was good enough that our customers were willing to wait.

7 What are you proudest of as you look back on a decade of Isolite Systems? 

Tom: I take great pride in the fact that our products have made dentistry easier and better for dentists, assistants, hygienists and patients. And I’m immensely proud of my brother’s design. We could have gone to a hundred designers and not come up with something as beautiful, elegant and organic as what he created.

Jim: I’m proudest of the gold we won in the medical category of the annual Business Week/Industrial Design Excellence awards. Other winners that year were BMW and Apple. Winning that award was the pinnacle of my industrial design career.

8 But you continue to make changes to the product?

Tom: Nothing is ever perfect, and if we can make a minor change and improve our product by even two percent, then we do it. We listen to dentists and respond to what they say.

Jim: As good as the Isolite mouthpiece was from the beginning, it too, has evolved. We started with one size and now have six. We recently introduced a major upgrade to our medium mouthpiece, and we keep pushing to improve our isolation technology. 

9 How important is it to you that Isolite is a family-run company based in the U.S.?

Tom: It’s huge. It’s good for our country and us, and we proudly stamp “Made in the USA” on every Isolite product.

Jim: Quality is all-important to me, and being located here gives us complete control over the manufacturing process and the integrity of our product. 

10 What’s the future look like for Isolite?

Tom: The future of Isolite looks, well, bright! We continue to enjoy strong acceptance of our products, we are expanding internationally, and we have some exciting new projects in the works…but we can’t say too much or we’ll get in trouble.

Jim: We’re always getting in trouble!