Dr. Ron Nguyen is the founder of Ultralight Optics and one of the pioneers of the Dental Loupe-Light movement. His revolutionary invention, the Feather Light LED, integrated optical designs and aircraft-grade aluminum alloys for the most technologically advanced headlight. Because Feather light is made by dentists, for dentists, it captures every functional aspect of illumination necessary in dentistry, ergonomics, and vision care. The success and innovation of Feather Light LED have been the inspiration for numerous articles, featured in Dental Town, Dentistry Today, Dental Economics, Dental Product Shopper, Dental Product Report, and many more. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Ron Nguyen about his entrepreneurial journey as well as his advice to budding entrepreneurs.
Dr. Glenn Vo: Everyone knows you as the founder of Ultralight Optics, tell us the origin story there.
Dr. Ron Nguyen: Before the concept of Ultralight Optics was born, I first got into the entrepreneur game in dental school. The tuition was insane. The price of attending the University of Southern California (USC) is up there, to say the least. I knew that I didn’t want to graduate with any debt, and I noticed that the seniors were all selling their dental equipment, but the incoming freshmen already had the only equipment so they had no one to sell it to. Because of that, the market price was nothing: It was like 5 to 10% the original retail cost for what was basically new equipment. I could get a typodont that’s normally $20 for $10 or an articulator that’s usually $600 for $70.
So I bought all my equipment like that right off the bat, and I was able to save thousands of dollars—which is a lot for a dental student. I thought, “Wait, hold on, if this benefits me, I bet this would benefit my friends, too.” They weren’t organized as well as I was because I already had some concepts of what we needed in the next semesters from my other friends. So what I did was I went and bought all the equipment that I needed for the next semester and this semester after that, but I also bought some extra equipment for my friends.
And while this equipment was 5 to 10% the market price when I bought it, it would sell for as much as 50% of the retail price when people actually needed it—so I was multiplying my money by five. It was bonkers—I was selling so much dental equipment. But I couldn’t get enough dental equipment to be able to sell, and I started to think about what I could make myself.
My friend’s husband was a manufacturer, so I talked to them and realized her husband could help me make something if I designed it. What I narrowed it down to was eventually thet LED light. There was a lot of tinkering in my underground—I did a lot of electronics—because I was basically a mechanical engineer. I tried to make my own LED light and completely failed the very first dozen times doing it. But I knew I wasn’t gonna give up, that I’d keep on going at it. I wanted to see if I could get my money back because I had already put out so much—I had put in $10,000 into making this business as a poor dental student. That said, I was still bringing in income from selling dental equipment.
I remained on the verge of figuring it out and failing time and time again until I finally cracked the code of what needed to be made and how to make it. In 2005, I sold my house to fund the whole project. I went all in because I knew there was no one else who made a LED light anything close to what we had. Most lights back then weighed about 30 grams—that’s really heavy—but mine came in at a mere three grams. In other words, my LED light was 10 times lighter than what my competitors were producing.
At the time, I was finishing up my freshman year at dental school and just starting my sophomore year, and I found it incredibly hard to balance passing my classes and launch this project at the same time—I was putting in 18 hour days. I was only selling to USC students at the time, but then this person—a student from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) named Tam—contacted me and said, “Hey, you want to go and sell your lights here?
I’d be a vendor.” I went up there to meet this person, and Tam is now actually my wife. I tried to sell our lights at the vendor day and only sold one, which was really demoralizing. The next day, Tam called me and asked how the event went, and I told her that we didn’t do too well. She says, “Ah, well, you only sold one, huh? Well, how about selling to the whole class?” She had sold the whole class for me. I pretty much hired her from there, but I hadn’t thought of it that way—I thought we were just friends and I’d pay her to help me with this project. For the next three years, I kept asking her on a date and she kept saying no.
She told me that she couldn’t date her boss, and I said “Whoa, I’m not your boss! We’re just friends working with one another.” From there, we started to develop into more of a personal relationship versus a work one. So, that was one big moment—I met my future wife and future company at that time—but another big moment would come at the Hinman Dallas convention.
I had to make a choice between graduating on time and finishing up my degree or going to this convention. I decided to go to the convention and, on the first day, we sold almost nothing. I was like, “Oh god, we’re gonna die, I should just give up right now.” And then, all of a sudden, on the next day, we crushed it so hard. Word got out, and people knew who we were. For the next two days, we just crushed it. And that’s when I knew that this was all worth it. Even though I wouldn’t graduate for about half a year because I went to this convention, I was so glad I went. It shot off like a rocket from there, people were talking about it and we started winning all these different awards.
Dr. Glenn Vo: Ultralight is known for its innovative product design. Share the process of creating and also upgrading a product.
Dr. Ron Nguyen: I have an entire team of engineers now as well as product designers who really make the process a lot smoother than before. When I first started, we were just blowing through like hundreds of thousands of dollars, banging our heads against the wall trying to get these things done.
Now that we understand the process so much better, it’s so much smoother. I can go from a concept and an idea to a functional minimum viable product (MVP) within a matter of weeks or months.
Dr. Glenn Vo: From lights to loupes, Ultralight has been behind a number of great products. If you had to choose one, what’s your favorite product?
Dr. Ron Nguyen: My favorite product is still the very first generation light that we made from RadioShack. I have a picture of the first person I sold it to. I actually got back the original light, battery packs,
Dr. Glenn Vo: You are the epitome of a serial entrepreneur, where do you get this entrepreneurial spirit from?
Dr. Ron Nguyen: The entrepreneurial spirit originally came from my dad—it’s a whole family-run business. It’s my dad’s support in helping me understand the business, it’s my younger brothers that help me run it and help create ideas, and it’s also the ideas and entrepreneurism that comes from the community.
If anyone has an idea, we love taking those ideas on and seeing if it’s possible to go and bring them to the next level. Most of my wealth actually comes because of all the entrepreneurial people around me: I’ve helped build them up and then they’ve helped build me up and together we actually grow so much more.
After starting my company by myself in dental school, I’ve realized how difficult and risky it is to bootstrap it. I’m always gonna partner up with someone else and work together as a team—it’s so much stronger that way.
Dr. Glenn Vo: Tell us about your family.
Dr. Ron Nguyen: My son Evan is only seven years old and already knows how to do 3D printing, coding, and scratching. Laura, our five-year-old daughter, is super creative, too. She knows how to draw and has a wonderful imagination. I was constructing a shelf in our living room, and she copied what was pretty much an exact replica of the shelf, telling me, “Look, it’s a little mini shelf that’s just like yours!” And then there’s Tyler, our youngest, who is three years old. He has a head start playing with the older kids, and that boy’s going to be brilliant.
Dr. Glenn Vo: How do you balance work and family life?
Dr. Ron Nguyen: There’s something about balancing work and family life that COVID-19 really made clear to me. Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, I was traveling 50 times a year. Every single week I was going to do something for one of the businesses that we have. When COVID-19 hit and I couldn’t travel as much anymore, I started to see the kids grow up and realize I had been missing a big part of their lives.
You can make all this money, but it has no meaning if you don’t have family behind it. They give you a reason to be making the money. I started to think, if I caught COVID and died the next day, what would I leave behind? It’s family that really counts—that’s what we’re working for—and family moments are the moments that matter more than anything else.
Dr. Glenn Vo: What is your advice to budding dental entrepreneurs?
Dr. Ron Nguyen: Look for the innovative new waves of products that exist out there. Specifically, keep an eye out for things that bug you in your dental office and push yourself to see if you could think of a better idea. Also, collaborate with people on these ideas. A lot of budding entrepreneurs have great ideas about stuff like this, but they keep it a secret and literally never tell anybody. If you go and share it with someone that you trust, then you can actually get off the ground. But if you just keep it to yourself, it will never go anywhere and it’ll stay just an idea.
Dr. Glenn Vo: What new Ultralight products are you excited about?
Dr. Ron Nguyen: This year was a huge year full of innovation because we were starting to design and develop and research during COVID since we had so much downtime. Now, those concepts are all being finished up. There are about four different products that we’re going to release sometime around this year, probably around Q4.
Dr. Glenn Vo: What are your feelings about the current state of Dentistry? And are you Optimistic or Pessimistic?
Dr. Ron Nguyen: Depending on where you’re at in the spectrum, I think it’s optimistic across the board—dentistry is a great field to be in. My wife is a dentist, and we have a dental practice that just rocks. We’re having a good time. I love coming in there and just testing all the different products, hearing about my wife’s day, and so on. She doesn’t have to practice, but she does because she’s passionate about it—she loves doing it.