ATS Innovations’ Téa Phillips on patience, preparation, and the importance of mentoring.
On a trip to Cuba two years ago, Tennessee Tech engineering students Sergio Ramirez and Ashley Wheeler noticed the difficulty many older people had with arthritis — and with access to geriatric medical care. “We wanted to develop a way for arthritis sufferers to manage their symptoms affordably and at home,” said Téa Phillips, who joined the team shortly after her classmates returned from Cuba.
Together with Ariel Viña and Adriana Pérez Gutiérrez, students from the Technological University of Havana, the team created the MetaFlex Therapy Glove, a grip-strengthening device users can wear while they go about their daily activities. The glove is made of compressive fabric with adjustable bands for each finger, so the wearer can tailor the resistance according to his or her individual needs. And as symptoms improve, there’s no need to buy a new product.
We chatted with Phillips about the ATS team’s 36|86 win and what’s going on with the business today.
What’s happened with ATS Innovations since you won the pitch competition at 36|86 Student Edition?
Winning money at the 36|86 Student Pitch competition meant we were able to keep working toward bringing the MetaFlex Therapy Glove to life! We’ve been patented, hired an awesome branding agency to revamp our social media, and we’re currently reworking our website. We’ve also been able to hire a pattern developer to get our prototype one step closer to manufacturing.
Besides winning the pitch competition, what did you gain from your experience at 36|86?
The community at 36|86 was just amazing. We made so many important and valuable connections with other entrepreneurs. Winning also helped cement our hope that what we were working on could be meaningful, which pushed us to work even harder after 36|86.
How did you prepare to pitch?
Luckily for us, we had just won our university’s pitch competition, TnTech’s Eagle Works Pitch Competition. That experience gave us access to mentoring and coaching from the amazing people at The Biz Foundry in Cookeville. We also got some awesome advice from our 36|86 assigned mentor, DeRoyal.
What advice do you have for this year’s 36|86 Student Edition competitors?
Just enjoy yourself. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re trying to build a business, especially if it’s your first one. The people at 36|86 are incredibly supportive — you’re coming into a great community.
Obviously, you also need to work hard, believe in yourself and your idea, and go to every networking event you can — polished, prepared, and with lots of business cards.
What advice do you have for pre-founder you?
The same advice I have for all pre-founders, which I learned the hard way: Be patient. It’s hard to just stop and breathe when you have this idea you love and really believe in — but you can’t do it all, and none of it will happen overnight.
The other piece is that 90% is good enough. I’m a perfectionist and I really let that control me sometimes, but I can get more done when I accept that not everything has to be totally flawless. Sometimes the most important thing is just getting something out there!
How has your vision for ATS Innovations evolved over time?
When we first created ATS Innovations the goal was to get our idea patented and sell or license it so we could keep working on all of our other ideas. We really came into this wanting to be intellectual property creators. Now, we’ve found it’s better for us to own everything we create and go through the entire process ourselves.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your business?
For me, it’s been the patience part. I have this plan of how every step should go and when I can make it happen, but it’s not all up to me or even us. We have to hire other people to do the things we can’t, and finding those people took a lot longer than I thought it would.
In five years, where do you see yourselves?
This is a question I actually get a lot and one I love answering because it allows me to dream a little. The goal is mostly to be working full-time for ATS Innovations, hopefully with a stable income. Currently, Ashley and I are working at other companies while we’re building ATS. Having the MetaFlex Glove out there, helping the people who need it, and working actively on our other ideas to help even more people is the goal.
36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival’s student pitch competition gives student innovators a platform to access funding, marketing, and community and corporate resources. Students from Tennessee colleges and universities are encouraged to apply by May 31. LaunchTN will select 12-15 finalists to participate in the pitch competition at 36|86: Student Edition, Aug. 28-29 in Nashville, for a chance to win a piece of $60K in prizes.