Where is Your Kurij?
Dr. Tung Bui Takes an Entrepreneurial Leap of Faith; Develops “Tooth-Friendly” Soft Drink
Another breakthrough idea sketched out on a drink napkin in a bar. Okay, Kurij soft drinks didn’t exactly start off as a scribble on a bar napkin, but back in 2006, it was conceptualized in a bar. Dr. Tung Bui, Endodontist, SADS member and CEO of Kurij, LLC, recalls that it all started back in 2006 when he was an endodontic resident at Oregon Health and Sciences University. After a long week of reading endodontic literature and treating patients, he visited a local watering hole with some fellow residents.
Dr. Bui remarked that they should come up with a real beverage called “liquid courage.” However, he’s quick to point out that this initially was just a gag. Creating a carbonated energy drink was virtually the last thing on his mind at the time. Dr. Bui jokes, “It was just a comedic idea that I had. I’m an idea guy. Whether the ideas are useful or funny, I enjoy sharing them with friends and family. In fact, I recently tinkered with an idea to install advertised-sponsored sunscreen dispensers around town, especially during the summer months.” Kurij Soft Drinks was invented that night at the bar—Dr. Bui just didn’t know it.
Fast-forward three years. After treating a stockpile of patients that suffered from poor oral health due to overconsumption of sugary beverages, a perturbed Dr. Bui set to work on a solution. He was tired of seeing patients with “soda mouth.” He thought, “This problem needs to be fixed at the source.” Recognizing that patients would be resistant to giving up sugary, carbonated drinks, Dr. Bui, ironically found himself considering the development of a carbonated beverage – one that would not rot his patients’ teeth. He and his business partner, Alex Deo, racked their brains to come up with a catchy, memorable name for this new “tooth-friendly” soft drink. Dr. Bui remembered that night in the bar, three years earlier, instead of calling it “courage”, the partners settled on the phonetic spelling, “Kurij.” A soft drink was born.
“I wish I could say that the idea hit me like a bolt of lightning, you know, like most inventors suggest, but it didn’t,” he said. “But I have to say that every time we tell people about our project, we get a lot of excitement. Some of the veteran beverage industry people we’ve talked to have alluded that this could be ‘big’; we’re hopeful they’re right.”
Kurij, according to Dr. Bui, “is a healthy soda.” It contains natural ingredients; nothing artificial. It is no/low calorie. He calls it, “A natural diet soda.” It contains water, carbonation*, Vitamin C, and a blend of low-calorie natural sweeteners, xylitol, and a proprietary blend of other ingredients and natural flavors.
* Some may be concerned with tooth erosion associated with carbonated water. But it has been shown to be a minimal cause of erosion.
“Unlike traditional soda ingredients, Kurij has no other acids. We carefully formulated the amount of carbonation and vitamin C to make sure Kurij is one of the least acidic sodas available. At a target pH above 4, Kurij would be similar to if not better than root beers. Root beers are considered the least acidic sodas on the market. For comparison, colas have a pH of about 2.5,” Dr. Bui articulates.
So, the partners have a product name but no product. Tackling this next obstacle, Dr. Bui held lab sessions in his kitchen every few weeks, trying to formulate the perfect concoction. Two years and and at least 20 different formulations later, they are finally getting close. Dr. Bui points out, “The majority of the efforts were on the functional ingredients. We were tinkering with therapeutic levels of xylitol and playing around with pH levels. We are presently finalizing our citrus flavor with the flavor house1.”
In looking back at the past two years, Dr. Bui indicated that every aspect of the process has its challenges. “There is never a day that we don’t have hurdles to jump over,” he sighed. “Nevertheless, we continued to move forward because we have the passion and drive to get this product to market.” Balancing this out, Dr. Bui quickly comments that the friendship formed amongst our three principle business partners and the wonderful people he’s met in the beverage industry has been the most rewarding aspect of this venture.
Can you provide a clinical synopsis of your findings that Kurij will not cause “soda mouths?”
Kurij is pH balanced. It has a pH of over 4. We have removed phosphoric acids and citric acids. Therefore, we expect to have negligible erosion on the teeth. Kurij doesn’t have any fermentable sugars and so it doesn’t contribute to tooth decay. It has therapeutic levels of xylitol in which we expect it to help fight decay. This is based on decades of xylitol research. To specifically show the functionality of Kurij, we plan to send samples to national dental research facilities to have them compare Kurij to other beverages. We expect the literature will conclude that Kurij will be the healthiest soda option on the market.
How will the Xylitol in Kurij actually help fight cavities?
Xylitol is a “tooth-friendly,” non-fermentable sugar alcohol. A systematic review study on the efficacy of xylitol has indicated dental health benefits in caries prevention, showing superior performance to other polyols (polyalcohols)... Managing Editor’s note: for a more comprehensive answer, Dr. Bui refers to the following Wiki article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xylitol.
Dieticians have provided research that diet drinks often do cause people to gain weight; however, in the article in the Arizona Daily Star you indicated, “You’re not going to gain weight from drinking this stuff. You can drink gallons of it.” What is the difference between Kurij and other low-calorie or diet drinks on the market?
The difference between Kurij and diet sodas is that we do not use artificial sweeteners. Everything is natural. We’ve even gone out of our way to not include preservatives. This requires a more expensive process of tunnel pasteurization. Yes, there is a lot of internet hype that diet sodas cause you to gain weight. Not all research is created equal. The literature you are quoting comes from a small study using rats. The research is not in humans. We need more studies especially stronger weighted “randomized controlled trials” in humans. Until then, I’d take the study results with a grain of salt.
If Kurij sales take off, would you ever consider leaving the dental profession?
Dentistry and endodontics is my passion. I look forward to waking up and heading out to work to help save teeth. I will always be a practicing dentist. Coincidentally, I am buying into a group practice. Who knows what I’ll be up to in the near future? One thing I know is that I’ll still be “reaming and dreaming, filing and smiling.”
If AzDA members have an innovative spirit like you, how would you advise them to explore it?
Have courage (Kurij) to follow your passion; no pun intended. There are plenty of reasons not to pursue your passion - block out those negative thoughts and concentrate on the reasons you should. Begin by changing your own attitude to change the world. Have a positive outlook in life. It’s like learning how to walk. If you fall, do you quit? No! You get up and try again. Set goals, and write them down.
I’d suggest not putting all your eggs in one basket. Put in your sweat equity and try your absolute best to find “other people’s money (investors).” Lastly, I’d put forth that you cannot do it on your own. Find like-minded people, with unique skills that you don’t have, to help you get where you need to go. Teamwork, whether it’s a dental office, the Arizona Dental Association, or a handful of guys with an idea and a prayer, are always better than going it alone.
1 A flavorist, also known as flavor chemist, is someone who uses both chemistry and art to engineer artificial and natural flavors. The tools and materials used by flavorists are almost the same as that used by perfumers with the exception that flavorists seek to mimic or modify both the olfactory and gustation properties of various food products rather than creating just abstract smells. The training of a flavorist is mostly done on-the-job and specifically at a flavor company known as a flavor house.