CRET: Dental Innovators Hall of Fame

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It's well-known that significant gaps exist between what students learn in dental school and the realities of everyday practice. Those gaps have widened in recent years, perhaps most significantly by the unprecedented pace of technological progress. It's one thing to acknowledge the ever-louder concerns of dental students: it's another to actually do something about it.

Dr. Edward F. Rossomando not only did something - he also developed a vision for making it happen, then rallied the biggest, most powerful players in oral healthcare technology around it. Dr. Rossomando is the founding father of CRET: the Center for Research & Education in Technology dedicated full-time to introducing the latest technology into dental curricula. Since 2004, the group has worked to align the goals of dental academic organizations and the dental industry to serve the interests of students and, by extension, the patient populations they treat the following graduation.

CRET's main mechanism for accomplishing this is developing Innovation Centers at schools like California's Loma Linda and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, among others. You'd think it'd be a no-brainer-free technology!- yet CRET has faced skepticism from the start. "There are two extremes," Dr. Rossomando says "on one hand, some schools can't wrap their heads around the idea that CRERT will provide them with more than $1 million worth of equipment as long as the school agrees to allow its students to provide care in the Innovation Center for a minimum of two weeks. On the other hand, some schools can proved this equipment for students and see no need to apply to CRET for an IC award. So we work with those schools that want us - and in most cases, the award for an IC goes to a school with a dean who has an inquiring mind"

As a prominent researcher and academic, Dr. Rossomando was, in some ways, the ideal person to carry the torch for CRET. "Having been a professor at a dental school for 44 years, I knew the mindset and spoke the language of academics" But he admits that when it came to dealing with corporations, his "researcher mindset" made it difficult to understand those in the business world. He struggled with the principles of entrepreneurship and the process of turning lab advancements into marketable products, despite having significant successes that yielded patents being issued and businesses formed. "It was a hard lesson to learn, but companies don't want to hear about your latest scientific achievement; they want to know if they can sell your discovery."

To broaden his perspective, around 2000 he went back to school for a master's in technology management. This was about the same time the digital revolution reached dental schools. "Unfortunately the existing dental faculty didn't know anything about this technology," he says "If a company gave equipment to a school, the schools didn't know what to do with it. For example, one prominent dental company tried simply giving the equipment away, and they found the schools took it but never used it. After many dental companies reported the same experience, it was clear that another approach was needed."

A turning point, he says, came in 2003, when he had lunch with Carl Bretko, then-president of DentalEZ "Carl said, we develop all this amazing tech, but schools are slow to adopt it" By the time the midday meal was over, the two had roughed out a plan to solve a marketing problem on the manufacturer's side - and an education problem on the schools' side.

"Fortunately, by this time, I was able to cultivate my inner salesperson. Working with Carl, we were able to go out and recruit like-minded companies" He also credits Patterson Dental's Grant Gerke, who helped secure seed money to get CRET on its feet. "One of our biggest challenges at the start was that dental companies are very competitive, so figuring out how to make them work as collaborators was part of getting traction"

Fast-forward to 2022, and several dental schools are in the process of opening CRET Innovation Centers. Meanwhile, the West Virginia University School of Dentistry opened the Dr. W. Robert Biddington Center for Dental Innovation in 2017, and the University of Mississippi opened the Regions Center for Research and Education in Technology Innovation Suite in 2019. To date, 32 dental companies have signed on as CRET members.

Although he has retired from full-time academics, Dr. Rossomando remains president of CRET and devotes much of his effort to encourage applications for CRET awards. "I target schools with an 'early adopter' approach. I expect about 6 or 7 percent of dental academics will be early adopters, and 6 or 7 percent are laggards" he says "My goal; is to increase the number of early adopters to 25 percent. If I can do that, I'll be happy. Until then, I'll keep trying" - E.K