Watch Nonspec's startup story. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

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.

[Related: How School-Lunch Trash Inspired Two Moms to Start an Eco-Cool Business]

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.

[Related: Listen to our podcast about the MIT grad who’s reinventing the wheelchair]

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.

Staying Motivated

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.

Check our our entire series on social entrepreneurs. 

Read Full Transcript

Erin: There are 54 million amputees worldwide, and 45 million of them lack access to a prosthetic limb. The reasons for that are time and the cost of prosthetics.

TEXT: Erin Kearney – Co-Founder & COO – Nonspec – Lowell, Massachusetts

Erin: Nonspec makes affordable, adjustable prosthetic limbs. It’s actually an off-the-shelf kit that can be rapidly adjusted to fit a range of amputees, and adjust with them as they change.

TEXT: Erin grew up near Lowell, MA.

TEXT: Her father, Stephen, is a plastic engineer in the medical device industry.

Erin: My dad would bring some pieces home and show me what he was working on, and I always thought it was really cool. So when I went to figure out what I wanted to do for college, I chose plastics because it was something that I could see being used in pretty much any industry.

TEXT: In 2009 Erin began her degree in plastic engineering at UMass Lowell.

TEXT: She started to work with another student, Jonathan de Alderete, to build a prosthetic hand.

Erin: The hand was a collection of joints that we had designed to resemble a human hand, and it had lines that would allow you to wear an ear cuff, which monitors your concentration, your brain power, and that would allow you to open and close the hand. And then one day we met a hand surgeon in Boston who was like, “This is a really bad design. It’s not how thumbs work. It’s not how the hand is supposed to curl.” He was like, “You know, people who are upper limb amputees, they get along really well. But people who are lower limb amputees are struggling to walk. Is this something you can use for them?”

TEXT: Erin and Jon did a major pivot and spent over a year developing an adjustable prosthetic leg.

Erin: We had to take all of our pieces and make them beefier, and we had to start thinking about what forces are used when people walk. So it’s actually, when you're normally walking, you put three times your body weight through your leg.

TEXT: In 2014 Erin and Jon set up Nonspec. They developed an adjustable pylon, the core of the prosthetic.

Erin: The devices that are already on the market only have a very slight angular adjustment available. We’re actually coming in and making it so that you can adjust the device while the amputee is using it, so that they can adjust for changing something as simple as their shoes.

TEXT: Erin and Jon tested the device for the first time in a rural clinic in India.

Erin: We’ve automated the process in order to reduce the cost very substantially. Right now, what we’re making in-house is $10. So we went into India and we said, “All right. We're going to sell this for $50, because our low-cost competitor is $50.” And all the clinicians said, “I'm not touching that. That means it must be the same low-quality as that competitor.” So we actually had to increase the cost of our product in order to be successful in the marketplace.

TEXT: Each device is fitted with a socket, specially designed for each patient.

TEXT: Nonspec has raised over $1 million in grants and competitions.

TEXT: Erin is working to raise $2 million to scale manufacturing in the U.S.

Erin: It is our goal to make sure that our technology gets to the people who need it, and that is our first and foremost mission. We don't want to sacrifice it getting to people who need it, for money.

TEXT: In India nearly 100 amputees are using the device.

TEXT: Nonspec has small teams in India, Rwanda and the Philippines to manage sales and service.

Erin: Originally I didn't have something directly connecting me to the problem of amputation, which I guess I'm lucky for. But as we started working with amputees, it was incredible to see the impact that our device could have. Just seeing people be able to return to their favorite sport, to do things that they love easier, is really what sticks with me every day, and it helps drive us every time we reach a difficult point.