Jul 052014

Erin Keaney has launched her engineering career with a bang. A May graduate of UMass Lowell, the Groton-Dunstable grad is vice president of Nonspec, a UMass Lowell incubated startup that has designed what could be a revolutionary new type of affordable prosthetic limb. Keaney, with a master’s degree in plastics engineering, is following her father’s academic footsteps — he is also a graduate of UMass Lowell’s plastics engineering department.

Nonspec’s chief operating officer, Jonathan de Alderete of Carlisle, graduated alongside Keaney earning a master’s degree in innovation and technological entrepreneurship.

The company recently won the eighth annual American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Innovation Showcase, beating out eight entries from seven other universities to earn a $25,000 seed money prize. The prize is the latest of several accolades the startup has received over the past year.

Nonspec grew out of a student project that accelerated through UMass Lowell’s DifferenceMaker program. DifferenceMaker teaches students entrepreneurial skills they can put to work solving business, technology, and societal problems, according to university spokeswoman Nancy Cicco. “In 2013, the team won the top prize of $5,000 in the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge, through which UMass Lowell students pitch their ideas for new products, services and technologies to expert judges. That award provided Nonspec with funding to create its first prototypes of prosthetic forearms,” according to Cicco.

Nonspec’s prosthetics are designed with innovative telescoping rods that let the arms and legs “grow” with the individuals, often children, who wear them. Instead of requiring custom fitting by specialists, the designs are flexible enough that nonprofessionals in developing countries can fit and adjust the limbs, Keaney said. None of the Nonspec crew has a background in medicine or prosthetics — and that allowed them to approach the design problem with fresh eyes, team members said.

“This means children in developing nations need to change their prosthetics fewer times throughout their childhood, allowing them to develop their muscles regularly and, overall, enjoy a more normal, active life. Our product can also be adjusted for adult clients,” said de Alderete.

The basic framework of rods that make up the limbs can be moved and controlled three ways — manually, by pushing and pulling the prosthetic to a fixed position; with a chest harness that the user uses to pull a series of cables to move the limb’s parts; or robotically, with a sensor that controls embedded electric motors in the limb. Keaney is working on the “skin” that will cover the mechanicals, she said. For children’s artificial limbs, the “skin” may be a canvas that the kids can decorate themselves, as they might a plaster cast.

Nonspec hopes to bring the devices to market at $20 per unit for the lowest cost manual control models, a cost Keaney and de Alderete said is only a fraction of what typical prosthetic limbs cost. They said that typical limbs sold in the U.S. are custom made and fitted, and can easily cost $50,000. Because the potential price of the limbs is so low, the Nonspec team hopes to reach thousands of amputees, especially children, in countries where cost would make the standard devices prohibitive.

Other members of the Nonspec team include Katherine Cain of Malden, who recently graduated from UMass Lowell with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and Brendan Donoghue of Shrewsbury, an engineering major who will start his senior year this fall.

After winning the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge, the team won first place and $1,000 in the Plastics Application Design Competition presented by the International Association of Plastics Distribution. Entrepreneur Magazine also recognized the startup as one of the top 10 semifinalists in the publication’s College Entrepreneur of 2013 contest.

“I feel great joy in seeing our students succeed,” said Robert Parkin, a UMass Lowell professor of mechanical engineering who has served as a Nonspec adviser. “The team is now pursuing up to five separate patents through the university’s Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property.”

“The university is thrilled to see the hard work and success of our students recognized and rewarded by respected national professional organizations like ASME,” Steven Tello, UMass Lowell’s associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development, said. Tello established the DifferenceMaker Program in 2012. “This is 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 the evolution of both the product and the Nonspec team.”