How to fill holes in dental care … without seeing a dentist


Before he could give people a free checkup of their pearly whites, founder and CEO of Pearlii Kyle Turner had to take a lot of intimate photographs.

 “Picture me in a corner at parties with a booth,” says founder and CEO of Pearlii Kyle Turner, “offering people a beer if they would give me photos of their teeth.”

 Apparently, people don’t like giving pictures of their teeth to strangers. And Turner needed the photos, lots of them, to build a library from which his artificial intelligence algorithm could learn.

 His plan was to create an app with which users could photograph their own teeth so the AI could give them a free, visual dental check-up.

 “The AI algorithm was the easy part,” says Turner. “The hard part was getting the data set. And I had to get dentists to label thousands of dental images which takes time and money.” 

 But perhaps even harder was the act of rising from poverty to the point where he could even think about starting a tech company. Turner, a Wiradjuri man, is from Dubbo in central-west NSW. “It was pretty chaotic growing up. There wasn’t anyone who was successful around us, so no one expected much of me.

 “Once I got to uni [ANU where he studied epidemiology], it was eye opening. It freed me up. Each year compounded. I failed a lot of classes my first semester but ended up getting first-class honours, just because I was really hungry … I ended up doing a PhD [on childhood obesity] at Oxford. I’m very proud of that.”

Dr Kyle Turner, founder and CEO of Pearlii | Image: supplied

 Horrified at the arrival of Deliveroo in Oxford, making junk food even more available, Turner started a healthy food delivery service in the famous university town. He raised $100,000, but burned through it and was soon back in Melbourne, broke, but with an appetite to try again.

With shocking teeth of his own, he knew that bad teeth were linked to many other problems, from heart disease to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, so he wanted to do something about it. “Dental check-ups were mostly just a visual examination by the dentist,” he recalls. “I thought you could automate that with computer vision, so I built an algorithm, a really shit one.”

“I kind of tricked one investor. I asked him if I could practice my pitch on him.”

Kyle Turner, CEO and founder of Pearlii

 “There were so many first-nations businesses there, so many investors, the energy was just beautiful,” recalls Turner. “I kind of tricked one investor. I asked him if I could practice my pitch on him. There was a pitch competition coming up, but I got him into a room one-on-one. He was really impressed. ‘I’ll put in 50k.’ I was aiming for 200k, and once you get a lead investor it’s a lot easier.”

He used the money to spruce up the app and launched Pearlii, a free dental check-up, in 2020. It started getting traction in the US and is now getting about 1000 downloads a week, says Turner.

Pearlii, based in Melbourne, has raised more than $1 million and has a staff of 17 in Australia and oversea. The plan had been to monetise the app by taking a cut from dentists for referrals. But Covid-19 put an end to that, and Pearlii pivoted to selling its own range of dental hygiene products (like the toothbrush pictured above).

 Turners says Pearlii will donate 50% of profits to charity. He hopes to fund a fleet of dental trucks to roam the outback, reaching the most underserved remote communities.  

 Turner has become a mentor for new start-ups coming through Dream Ventures and remains indebted to the chance it gave him. “I’m not sure if I could have done Pearlii without them.”