The Story Exchange
By Colleen DeBaise
Everyone is beating up on plastics these days. This very news organization called it a toxic scourge on our planet in this podcast. But Erin Keaney would like to remind people that plastic — as a lightweight, easily moldable material — also has significant beneficial uses for humanity.
“People don’t recognize how often plastics is helping,” says Keaney, a 28-year-old plastics engineer who co-founded Nonspec, a maker of affordable prosthetic limbs for amputees in developing nations. “If you’ve ever been in a hospital, 90% of the things that can save your life involve plastics.” And yes, there are profound environmental issues with single-use plastics, like shopping bags or straws, but “what I try to make the world see are the places where plastics are incredibly helpful — and one is medical,” she says.
How She Started
Case in point: Her startup’s patented “pylon,” the part that connects a below-the-knee amputee’s stump to a prosthetic foot. As undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Keaney and partner Jonathan de Alderete decided to re-imagine the artificial limb after learning that much of the world’s amputees couldn’t afford high-cost prosthetics. “There are 54 million amputees worldwide, and 45 million of them lack access to a prosthetic limb,” Keaney says. “The reasons for that are time and the cost of prosthetics.”
To lower costs, Keaney and de Alderete decided to replace the expensive metal that’s traditionally used in pylons with a medical-grade plastic. That cut the price to less than $20 per device — a far cry from the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that prosthetics can cost. They also made the new design easily adjustable, “so kids as they grow can just adjust their prosthetic and not have to go to the doctor to get things fixed, and really just live their lives as they want to,” she says.
In 2013, they entered their original idea in the school’s inaugural DifferenceMaker program, winning first prize and $5,000. They have since refined the pylon — the initial version was for a forearm, not a lower leg — and won numerous other awards, from MassChallenge, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Cartier Women’s Initiative, among others, raising about $1 million to date for Nonspec.
Testing It Out
Keaney, who grew up in Groton, Massachusetts, was drawn to plastics at an early age. Her father is a plastics engineer in the medical device industry, and has worked on a variety of heart and women’s health products. “Growing up he would bring some pieces home, and show me what he was working on, and I always thought it was really cool,” she says.
At UMass-Lowell, studying plastics seemed a natural choice, though Keaney wasn’t sure if she’d be using her skills to make toys or automobiles. But she soon realized that she, too, had a passion for medical devices. After she and de Alderete began developing artificial limbs for the competition, they learned that India — by sheer size of its population — is one of the largest markets for amputees. Thanks to a university exchange program, they were able to travel to a rural clinic to test out an early prosthetic leg design.
Their first client was a 65-year-old farmer. “We put the prosthetic limb together and we had him stand up and he immediately collapsed,” she recalls. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh! This is over. Something went wrong.’” The farmer was fine — he was able to catch himself — and Keaney quickly realized that the issue was with the socket (the part that covers an amputee’s stump), not their product. After an adjustment, the farmer tried again. “He’s been walking on our leg for four years now, which is really exciting,” she says.
Today, five years since Keaney and de Alderete incorporated Nonspec, some 200 amputees worldwide are using the leg prosthetic. While the business partners — who married last year — work out of a university co-working space in Lowell, they have small teams of sales-and-service people on the ground in places like India and the Philippines. They continue to raise money through competitions, recently securing $33,000 through an innovation competition sponsored by Siemens Stiftung.
But the development process is a slow and expensive one, and they are still making tweaks to the prosthetic, which is manufactured in-house. Last year, they decided to add some aluminum to strengthen the all-plastic device, after learning that kids who played sports like soccer or badminton would break them. But the good news — and Keaney says she stays motivated by hearing good news — is that kids who have lost limbs are playing sports again, thanks to Nonspec. “Hearing the stories from people about how our devices improve their lives, that’s what keeps us going,” she says.
Like many entrepreneurs who are bootstrapping startups, Keaney and de Alderete continue to work other jobs to pay the bills, both as adjunct professors at the university. Keaney also serves on an advisory board for the Society of Plastics Engineers, and preaches the message that plastics can be used to solve major healthcare issues.
“Thinking plastics is all bad is a very dangerous, slippery slope,” she says.