Living Legacies Series: Meet Paul Sagel, Co-Creator of Crest Whitestrips

Paul Sagel, a Victor Mills Society Research Fellow in P&G’s Oral Care organization, still smiles when he recalls that time in his career when consumers were writing the CEO, beaming about a new product on the market that was transforming the teeth-whitening game: Crest Whitestrips.

“It defined me professionally and personally. It really does change people’s lives.”

A man looking at the camera with the couch in the back

Paul joins our Living Legacies series, a company-led conversation with some of our most innovative and accomplished employees. The stories go in depth with P&G people who pioneer our greatest innovations, social initiatives and product legacies.

Paul joined P&G in 1993. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati and working for a short time as an intern with another consumer products company, he had to weigh two options in front of him: graduate school, or an offer he’d received from P&G. Paul chose P&G.

A man in a white coat posing in front of various products stacked away in a glass cabinet

“While I was very excited about my position with P&G, I was hoping they wouldn’t assign me to Oral Care because, at that time, I thought it would be boring. Besides fluoride in toothpaste, what else was there to do? Well after 26 years, I can tell you, it’s turned out to be the greatest thing ever.”

It's not like you walked in and suddenly inspiration struck. Or did it? What were your first few years at P&G—and specifically in Oral Care—like for you?

As a new hire, I was learning the science of oral care and the technical models, and working on a chewing gum to deliver oral care benefits. I also developed methods using imaging to measure plaque on teeth—a method we still use today. As time went on, I was tasked with learning more about this “tooth whitening craze.” I was pretty new in the company, so I didn’t fully realize the magnitude of this new project, which would turn out to be a huge inflection point for Oral Care and my career.

You were four years into your career, paired up with a Senior Researcher and Vic Mills Society Fellow. What difference did that make?

Yes, Bob Dirksing and I just jived. We had a great synergy going. It didn’t take long to come up with the idea of the strip. Bob helped me really bring the idea to life. He challenged me to lead. “OK, so how do you do it? How do you find the right materials? How do you cut out the shape so you don’t have to do it by hand?” He was an enabler.

We would work in the lab side by side. We progressed it fast. We went from the initial idea of the strip to the first whitening efficacy test in just a couple of weeks. We tested among my co-workers in the building to start. I re-applied the plaque imaging techniques to take before and after images of the whitening results. Bob was a very important mentor to me.

Take us into the room where you first pitched the Whitestrips idea to P&G’s Chief Technology Officer at the time, Gordon Brunner. How did that go?

Oh, that is one of those moments I wish I could re-live. My Associate Director at the time, Matt Doyle, pulled me aside. “Hey, what do you have new in the way of a delivery device?” I said I have this “strip” idea for application. I showed it to him. And the next thing I know, I’m in front of the CTO!

So I went into the meeting and cut a strip right there in the meeting room. Before I could even finish explaining the idea, Gordon reached over and took a strip, put it on his teeth, and said, “This is it!”

What are your thoughts on innovation today?

The pace of innovation is faster now than ever before. The ability to make external connections on technology and bring them to life is enabled by the rapid expansion of the digital world. The numbers and types of products coming to the market is faster than ever.

Our job is to find the innovations that serve the consumer, and the company, from both internal development and external connections. Our mindset today is to make sure we are running the right experiments early on to identify the big opportunities.

Paul Sagel

You started with Impress food storage wrap for Whitestrips. How can we look at existing products and think outside the box to re-invent their use?

The original strip used a gel to hold it in place. While it was good enough to launch, it wasn’t perfected yet. We worked with an external company that developed trans-dermal patch adhesives for skin and applied it to teeth. The result was a much-improved user experience.

Fast-forward to 2019. What do you do at P&G today, and why do you still choose to innovate here?

I put puzzles together. When it comes to innovation, I’m able to take pieces from all fields of science such as engineering, chemistry, and biology and put them together to create useful consumer product innovations.

Developing Whitestrips was an incredible experience for me. When you work on something that prompts people to write letters to the CEO about it to say it really changed their life, it’s great.

John Smale, one of our former CEOs, said, “Innovation is the lifeblood of P&G.” I have lived it, and he is right. P&G is a true leader in innovation. Just look at the tremendous number of game-changing innovations P&G brought to consumers over the years. It is a blessing to work here.

If I were to visit your house right now, how many Crest Whitestrips boxes would I find?

Well, that depends. If friends and family were recently there - none! They take them!

Any whitening tips from the master?

Quite simply, just go do it. You’ll be amazed at the compliments you get!

What would you say is the #1 thing P&G needs to do to win?

Bring innovations to the market that improve lives and are superior to the alternatives in the marketplace. We have some really exciting innovations coming very soon. I’m super excited about them!