Innovators special feature: Samantha Cheetham

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Samantha Cheetham, SDI executive director
Samantha Cheetham, SDI executive director

Once a hard-working scientist, Jeffery Cheetham could see a more lucrative career when he spent a few years working for a US-owned manufacturer of dental products in the 1970s. Before long, his innovation and determination encouraged him to open his own company, producing amalgam fillings that would be faster and cheaper to produce. In 1972, he set up the fledgling Southern Dental Industries (now SDI), which currently generates annual sales of around $65 million. As well as amalgam fillings, SDI sells an extensive range of restorative and cosmetic dental products. “He is very innovative,” says his daughter Samantha Cheetham who’s the executive director in charge of sales and marketing at SDI. “He worked the market pretty hard and was able to gain the confidence of dentists. They agreed that his new products were better than what was available at that time.” Jeffery Cheetham’s empire began with a very small factory and office in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. It’s been a long-time commitment even though 95 per cent of SDI’s production is exported to around 100 countries. “We estimate we have around two-to-three per cent of the total world market in dental restoratives,” says Samantha Cheetham. Currently, SDI focuses on product development—a decent portion of pre-tax profit is regularly reinvested into research and development. “Most of our chemists have PhDs so they specialise in resin technology, chemistry and other materials to produce better dentistry,” she says. Determined to release at least one product a year, SDI’s recent launches include the Aura restorative material, Riva Bond LC light cured bonding agent, and Riva Star tooth desensitising agent and cavity cleanser (“the dental industry’s answer to the bandaid,” quips Cheetham). To ensure new products will generate sales, there’s one element that’s always factored in—dentists. Apart from SDI’s full-time dentist who works with key opinion leaders in Europe, the company works with various consultants in the dental industry. “That’s really important because they’re the ones who test the products,” says Cheetham, “and if a product doesn’t fit the bill, then there’s no point investing in it.” SDI also turns to dentists when looking for new concepts. “They’re innovative, technical people who often suggest useful ideas,” she explains. “They may be a little on the quirky side but often these are the best concepts to explore.” 

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