Benson Honig and Ian Wilms pose with their team of students.

November 12, 2015

Knights of Floss, evil Prince Plaque help grad students brush up on their entrepreneurial skills

How can the tooth fairy go global? That’s the challenge given to a team of graduate students this fall in a unique course on entrepreneurship at McMaster.

Mac alumnus Ian Wilms ’89 co-founded Brushalot in 2013 to solve a problem that all parents face – how to get their kids to brush their teeth.

The idea came to him about nine years ago, when one of his sons didn’t want to brush his teeth anymore, or give up his loose tooth. Wilms quickly concocted a bedtime story about the tooth fairy, with a cast of characters that included Sir Brushalot, the Knights of Floss and the evil Prince Plaque.

The story became an award-winning children’s book and then a line of toothbrushes, night lights, blankets and toys. There’s even a stuffed horse with a saddle that holds the tooth on one side and the moolah from the tooth fairy on the other.

To date, Wilms and co-founder Terry Line have had the most success with dentists and teachers, thanks to the product’s strong educational component. The book is available in French, German, Japanese and Mandarin, and the Tooth Fairy Kit has been accepted into the Chinese school system for next year.

Brushalot still has teething pains, though, when it comes to taking a bite out of the all-important U.S. market.

Both the toy industry and the children’s book market are “notoriously difficult to break into,” says professor Benson Honig of the DeGroote School of Business. The Teresa Cascioli Chair in Entrepreneurial Leadership, Honig has taught his graduate entrepreneurship course for the past six years.

Honig first learned about Brushalot when he spotted a Tooth Fairy Kit on the desk of graduate program administrator Kim Wilms, who happens to work down the hall from him. She also happens to be Ian Wilms’ wife.

“The more she told me, the more intrigued I was,” says Honig, who invited Ian to make a pitch to his students. “I’m really impressed with what he’s done. He’s a real entrepreneur,” says Honig of Wilms.

The course is open to any graduate student at McMaster. Wilms’ team is a great example of the heterogeneous make-up of the class:

Caitlin Warren is a part-time MBA student who works in retail in supply chain logistics. An MBA exchange student from France, Julie Crépet has a marketing background. Kirren Virdee is a co-op MBA whose focus is nutrition as well as marketing. And Xiaoyue Wang is an engineering PhD student, specializing in bio materials – including dental implants.

“I’m a big believer in experiential learning,” says professor Honig. “If you were learning how to paint, you wouldn’t expect to be reading books about painting. You’d be painting. Entrepreneurship is very much like that.”

The four students will polish their entrepreneurial skills and help Sir Brushalot conquer two big challenges: global marketing and social media reach. One interesting problem will be how to translate the tooth fairy story into other cultures that have their own legends.

 The Tale of the Tooth Fairy was recognized by the Canadian Toy Testing Council as one of its Great Books for 2014. The Tooth Fairy Kit was listed as a Top 10 Socially Responsible Product by Dr. Toy in 2013.

“I want this to become a family tradition,” says Wilms of his pearly tale of oral hygiene. He has his own family tradition at McMaster: He has a degree in political science, his parents and brother also graduated from Mac, his wife works in the DeGroote School of Business, and his daughter is in her first year, studying nursing.

Wilms has big dreams for Brushalot. “Wouldn’t it be neat if our story gets adopted globally as the ‘de facto’ tooth fairy myth – and it all started in Hamilton with McMaster’s help!”

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