Skip to Main Content

Young Entrepreneurs Win $25,000 in Design Competition

Team Fabricates Innovative Artificial Limbs for Children

UMass Lowell Image
From left, Nonspec members Katherine Cain, Erin Keaney, Jonathan de Alderete and Brendan Donoghue pose with the ASME check for $25,000 in Washington, D.C.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Nonspec — a startup company established by UMass Lowell engineering-students-turned-entrepreneurs to design and mass-produce affordable prosthetic limbs for children in developing countries — won the top prize of $25,000 during the eighth annual American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Innovation Showcase, held April 28 in Washington, D.C.

The ASME created the national competition to “foster and promote creativity and entrepreneurial spirit within the next generation of innovation leaders.” The University beat eight other entries from seven schools, namely Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia, Rice University, George Washington University, the University of Hawaii, the University of Michigan and Western New England University.

“Nonspec is honored to receive the award,” says Erin Keaney, one of the company’s founders who will be graduating in May with a master’s degree in plastics engineering. “The competition was fierce, and we were very impressed with the innovative technologies highlighted at the event.”

Other members of the Nonspec team include Jonathan de Alderete and Katherine Cain, who will complete a master of science degree in innovation and technological entrepreneurship (MSITE) and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, respectively, this spring, and Brendan Donoghue, a mechanical engineering and history undergraduate and co-op student.

“I feel great joy in seeing our students succeed,” says mechanical engineering Prof. Robert Parkin, the team’s senior capstone adviser. “Nonspec greatly exceeded my expectations. The team is now pursuing up to five separate patents through the University’s Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property.”

Adds Assoc. Prof. Steven Tello, associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development: “The University is thrilled to see the hard work and success of our students recognized and rewarded by respected national professional organizations like the ASME. This recognition is a testament to the quality of the students and faculty at UMass Lowell.”

Getting Ready for the Next Phase

“The prize money will sustain us over the summer as we embark on human U.S. trials,” notes Keaney. “The future of Nonspec is looking bright. As most of the team is graduating next month, we are now working full time on the project and seeking an official office space. We are also finalizing our lower-limb design this summer as well as the human trials.”

She says after graduation, the core team will be continuing the project.

“We are in the process of creating a limited liability company, or LLC, and will all be working for Nonspec as our primary employer,” says Keaney.

“We are witnessing the evolution of both the product, the extendable prosthetic arm, and the Nonspec team,” says Tello. “This is no longer a student capstone project but rather a sustainable business model and assistive technology device that strive to make a real difference in the world. It has been both rewarding and fun to watch this evolution.”

He notes that awards and recognitions of Nonspec from four different national organizations over the past year — the International Association of Plastics Distribution, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, the ASME and — suggests that the University’s plan to elevate and integrate entrepreneurship across academic and extra-curricular programs was well founded.

“We knew our students could be successful in national design and business plan competitions; Nonspec’s success proves this,” says Tello. “The company’s accomplishment is now encouraging other student teams to step forward with the DifferenceMaker program.”

To make a tax-deductible contribution to support Nonspec and other University student projects, go to Hawk Hatch at