Recent UVA graduate Eric Tetlow (‘17) knows a thing or two about grit. “If there’s one strength I can boast about, [it’s that] I think I have grit on my shoulders,” the TETNOVA co-founder tells me. A former UVA football player who continued taking the field throughout his first three years despite several surgeries (his third surgery during the summer of 2016 ultimately retired him), Eric came to entrepreneurship by way of “a lot of luck,” but that underlying entrepreneurial mettle has always existed within the athlete’s temperament. As proof of his penchant for perseverance, Tetlow has now joined a new type of team off the field – the Richmond native recently combined forces with his father Peter to create TETNOVA, a company which develops analytics for animal research. While the company is still in its early stages, the idea has been brewing in Peter’s head for the past fifteen years – as Assistant Director for Infrastructure for the Division of Animal Resources at Virginia Commonwealth University, he’s had a unique vantage point on the regulations, operational practices, and UX design in that field for decades. According to Eric, he’s the kind of person who’s “always looking for ways to make things better,” and now with Eric’s collaboration, he has the opportunity to put his ideas into action.
His 2016 surgery left Eric bedridden and facing the idea that his athletic aspirations were no longer viable, so once he became more mobile in August of that year, he searched for a month-long internship to help him find a new career direction. As helpful dads do, Peter reached out to his VCU contacts and was able to connect Eric with VCU Innovation Gateway, which – among other things – runs a small incubator. The Innovation Gateway team required Eric to take an online course called “How to Build a Startup” in order to get up to speed during his first days of work, and this – coupled with his proximity to entrepreneurs over the following month – sparked an interest Eric hardly knew was there. During check-ins with his dad, Peter revealed he’d always harbored the desire to start his own business himself – on top of that, he’d already been mulling over a specific idea for more than a decade, but the technology had only recently caught up to the vision in Peter’s head. Eric shares that while his stint rubbing shoulders with entrepreneurs taught him many things, the biggest lesson was a simple but profound one: he “was fascinated to see that entrepreneurship really is for anyone – anyone with an idea who recognizes a problem.” He knew just the person who fit that role. By the following month, Eric and Peter began laying the groundwork for what would become TETNOVA, a highly-automated new way of monitoring and analyzing research animals 24/7, giving live alerts and acting as the eyes and ears for researchers when they can’t be physically present.
Institutions have extensive research guidelines and requirements by which they must abide, which leaves a great need for products like this. For example, VCU has 20,000 rodents, and each of them must be examined for at least 4-5 seconds each day, during which time the researcher is expected to go through a lengthy checklist assessing the animal’s behavior and health. This means that, all too often, important issues or signals are missed during this extremely brief procedure, and sometimes they’re not found at all until the next cage cleaning every two weeks. Alternatively, the TETNOVA system allows research teams to start with a basic health assessment of each animal, then house them in the structures they already use (ventilator rack systems of about 140 cages each are the kind that the Tetlows are most familiar with). TETNOVA would provide a system mounted to the rack that uses cameras to peer into each cage, collecting hours of video and using algorithms to categorize and alert the team to behavioral anomalies. Not only will this system provide better, more accurate data, Tetlow shares, it will also allow teams to reduce the number of animals used and, thus, lessen the costs associated with conducting research.
This new venture has come as a bit of a surprise to the rest of the Tetlow family – Eric explains that his dad is a “very calculated person” who heavily researches something before he does it and was “always the data guy” sharing perhaps-too-many statistics with Eric’s coaches about how the team could improve. Going out on an entrepreneurial limb is a bit of a departure for him. As for Eric, he was always steeped in the world of sports and assumed that, although his athletic career was plagued by injuries, he’d find a path within that world, perhaps through coaching or sports management. However, these two are living out the notion Eric discovered last year, that “anyone can do it,” an idea that their time in the i.Lab has helped support and refine. Eric says he’s reveled in getting to work with his dad, someone who’s clearly knowledgeable in the field and on whom he knows he can rely and trust.
Naturally, inevitable setbacks have been thrown their way – Eric recalls a period about half-way through the i.Lab incubator during which he felt stuck, sensing a need to shift his thinking from a software-first approach to a hardware-first mindset. Additionally, he needed a “restart” in his customer discovery practices, as he continued to home in on what steps were necessary in order to move forward. Tetlow works on TETNOVA full-time during the day and bartends at night, which effectively extends the definition of a “long day” to new lengths, encompassing a 4am bedtime. But a pivotal conversation with the incubator’s Program Director gave Eric the reminder he needed: “he told me ‘once you start to feel scared or uncomfortable, you know you’re making progress.’” Tracing a similar sentiment all the way back to his football training and the hurdles he’s already overcome, Eric echoed this statement with one small word: grit.