By David Perry
How do you take the world by storm while lending it a hand?
Jonathan de Alderete and Erin Keaney are finding out. The duo, co-founders and partners in Nonspec Inc., an emerging business that is making affordable prosthetics, landed a cool $50,000 prize as one of the Top 26 startups at MassChallenge, the Boston-based business accelerator.
Nonspec, which makes low-cost prosthetic limbs for people in developing nations, is perhaps the best-known calling card of UMass Lowell’s DifferenceMaker program. It was named the first campuswide DifferenceMaker winner in 2013, earning a $5,000 purse.
It didn’t end there. Since then, their adjustable, injection-molded prosthetic limbs have been refined and improved. They have raised $350,000 in grants and competitions, and they now have a staff of six – three in the U.S. and three in India, home to one in five of the 3 million people who undergo amputations.
Sales have just begun.
Senior Associate Vice Chancellor Steve Tello says MassChallenge is a “highly respected, highly competitive” program that received 1,500 applications from companies around the world for 128 seats in the business accelerator. For four months, participating startups have access to corporate partners, expert mentors and more than 26,000 square feet of shared workspace in Boston’s Innovation and Design Building. They also have access to a research and development lab for designing and building prototypes.
The program culminated in the Nov. 2 MassChallenge Boston Awards, where the most promising startups split more than $1.5 million in equity-free awards. Nonspec was one of 12 gold winners that took home $50,000.
“We’ve made mistakes, learned to articulate what we do ... But it has all been worth it to see what a difference our product can make in a person’s life.”
-Nonspec COO Erin Keaney
“The concepts, the teams and their business plans were evaluated by experienced and successful entrepreneurs, businesspeople and investors,” notes Tello. That Nonspec made the final 26 “is a significant validation of Nonspec business and of our own DifferenceMaker program.”
The award affirms the work the startup has been doing, said Keaney, who is attending the Global Entrepreneurs Summit in India thanks to a nomination from the Lemelson Foundation. “We plan to use the $50,000 to purchase materials to make more limbs, help our India team to be self-sustaining and to accelerate our manufacturing,” she said.
“So much has changed,” said Keaney, Nonspec’s Chief Operating Officer. “We have changed from designing and making hands, to arms, to legs.” They’ve worked toward making limbs that are effective and affordable.
“We’ve made mistakes, learned to articulate what we do and have delivered too many pitches to count. But it has all been worth it to see what a difference our product can make in a person’s life.”
Nonspec began sales in India a month ago. Presales put the company on track to meet 2018 sales goals, said Keaney: “We plan to break into the U.S. market next year and are exploring expansion into the Philippines and Rwanda as well.” They will continue to seek funds, with a goal of raising $700,000 over the next 18 months, to allow Nonspec to scale up manufacturing and hire staff.
At the recent Design in Plastics conference in Detroit, Keaney addressed the Youth, Empathy & Startups breakout workshop.
From Dec. 5 through 20, Keaney, de Alderete and their trio of staff from India attend the Enable Makeathon to further improve their product and explore marketing opportunities.
Keaney said that of 54 million amputees worldwide, 35 million are in developing countries.
“Although most of them have access to a clinic, they don’t have access to someone who can fit a prosthetic or have the funds available to afford a prosthetic that works well for them,” she said. The waiting period can be up to two years; Nonspec thinks it can change that. It is working with 22 clinics to spread their products and gain feedback.
Keaney, who earned her Ph.D. in plastics engineering in May, is – with fiancé de Alderete – teaching at UML. She taught Medical Device Design alone and, along with de Alderete, co-taught Biomedical Engineering.
Tello called Nonspec “a great example of the ingenuity, creativity and grit that UMass Lowell students bring into the world and the workplace.” They have “managed the ups and downs of the entrepreneurial process, always moving forward and closer to their goal.
“They have beat the best,” adds Tello. “This is what our UMass Lowell students, our DifferenceMakers, do in the world.”