Two Tech graduates already getting return on education investment

Téa Phillips and Ashley Wheeler are ready to get a return on their education investment with their own business, ATS Innovations.

COOKEVILLE – What started out as an assignment on an educational trip has turned into a full-blown company for a couple of recent Tennessee Tech graduates.

Téa Phillips and Ashley Wheeler are ready to get a return on their education investment with their own business, ATS Innovations.

“We feel so blessed to be coming out of Tennessee Tech with this product,” said Phillips, who is from Shelbyville. “It’s just a big family here and everyone has been so excited and willing to help.”

The product is the Metaflex Therapy Glove, and it evolved from a prototype in Tech’s Clinical Immersion at Disciplinary Interfaces course taught by Melissa Geist, featuring nurses and engineers. Some of the students in the class, including Wheeler and Sergio Ramirez, traveled to Havana, Cuba, and spent a week identifying problems that impact healthcare and developing prototypes through reiterative design.

Wheeler, a chemical engineering major from Smyrna, and Ramirez, a nursing major from Gallatin, were part of a team who came up with the glove prototype to help the elderly with arthritis pain in their hands.

“We went into a clinical setting with some elderly in Cuba. After several interviews, it was discovered most of the people had arthritis,” said Ramirez, who graduated from Tech on Saturday. “Our first drafts were nothing compared to what we eventually came up with. Ultimately, we came up with the glove idea.”

Ramirez and Wheeler brought the prototype back to Tech where they brought in Phillips, a mechanical engineer, to help with the design.

“We worked really hard for months, interviewing people and believing in our idea,” said Phillips, who also graduated this past Saturday. “I got lucky. They had the initial idea and prototype, and I just kind of drove us there.”

Téa Phillips, Sergio Ramirez and Ashley Wheeler show off their display at Tech’s Eagle Works competition.

After a few tweaks and lots of time spent on their product, Phillips, Wheeler and Ramirez presented their idea at Eagle Works, an innovation and entrepreneurship competition similar to Shark Tank which encourages and supports student entrepreneurship at Tech. The trio took home first place and a check for $6,000 along with $500 more for Best Social Impact.

“Eagle Works was incredible,” said Phillips. “It really gave us a launching pad for our business.”

With the money from the Eagle Works competition, Phillips and Wheeler were able to do more with their product. Ramirez voluntarily removed himself from the group to concentrate on nursing, so Phillips and Wheeler formed ATS Innovations.

The next step was presenting the product at Launch TN’s 36/86 Student Edition Pitch Competition. The product was well-received as Phillips and Wheeler placed third, collecting $10,000 for their pitch in front of professional investors.

“You do a lot of projects in college and you kind of put it in the college box and set it aside when the semester is over,” said Wheeler. “Because we had a platform where we had a lot of resources to help us develop a business plan and projections and kind of a timeline moving forward, those resources helped us take what could have been just a college project to progress into a business.”

Wheeler, who graduated in May and works at Chromalox in La Vergne as a sales application engineer as part of the Global Graduate Program, is the chief financial officer of the company. Phillips, who just accepted a job with Y12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, is the chief executive officer.

“We are going to make something of this, and we are going to sell it,” said Phillips. “We are really excited about it. We are in talks with companies about getting prototypes done.”

Phillips is also talking with Tennessee Tech head baseball coach Justin Holmes about testing the prototype.

“The plan is to hire someone to sew gloves and give them to the baseball team for testing,” said Phillips. “We’ll be recording how often they wear the glove, routinely testing their grip strength to get some data.”

Phillips and Wheeler have a website and are on Facebook and Instagram. They are also looking for a permanent place for their business. For now, though, they will continue working from home and continue building on the opportunity they invested in while attending Tech.

“Tennessee Tech was extremely helpful. It has been an awesome resource,” said Phillips. “We have to thank Michael Aikens and Andrea Kruszka, who work at Tech’s Center for Rural Innovation and Entrepreneurship. They’ve been such a great resource, as well as Jeff Brown at The Biz Foundry and Kevin Christopher at Ridgeline Venture Law. We couldn’t have done this without them.”

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