Here’s one good use for plastic: Medical devices. At UMass-Lowell, plastics engineer Erin Keaney decided to re-imagine the artificial limb after learning that much of the world’s amputees couldn’t afford high-cost prosthetics. In this inspiring podcast, listen to how 29-year-old Keaney has developed a patented prosthetic that is changing amputees’ lives in India, Rwanda and the Philippines. She and classmate Jonathan de Alderete have raised $1 million for Nonspec.
[Related Article: Meet the Plastics Engineer Who’s Raised $1 Million to Make Prosthetic Legs]
COLLEEN: Hey everyone! We recorded this interview with Erin Keaney of Nonspec before the coronavirus outbreak. Like many of us, Erin is now working remotely and virtually reaching out to customers around the world to advise them on best safety precautions.
SUE: You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange, featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing.
COLLEEN: I'm Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: I'm Sue Williams.
ERIN: As we started working with amputees, it was incredible to see the impact that our device could have.
ERIN SOT: Ideally, we need to have the wood pieces touching the foot at all times. And just pressurizing and releasing.
COLLEEN: And that is a plastics engineer who we met recently at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
ERIN: I'm Erin Keaney. I'm co-founder and COO of Nonspec. And what volume should I talk at? Is this good or should I be loud?
CAMERAMAN (from tape): You do whatever you want.
ERIN: I do get excited sometimes (laughter).
SUE (from tape): Well that’s great. We love that.
COLLEEN: Erin is definitely passionate about her work.
ERIN: Nonspec makes affordable, adjustable prosthetic limbs for amputees worldwide.
COLLEEN: Just to be honest: I didn't know a lot about prosthetics before we spoke with Erin.
SUE: And neither did I.
COLLEEN: But what she's doing — basically out of a university coworking space — is really incredible and fascinating and eye-opening.
SUE: And best of all, it’s helping so many people in developing nations remake their lives.
ERIN: There are 54 million amputees worldwide, and 45 million of them lack access to a prosthetic limb.
COLLEEN: In this episode, we'll tell you how Erin is using her engineering skills...
SUE: ...to design an innovative and inexpensive prosthetic leg.
COLLEEN: Stick around.
ERIN: I graduated with my BS in 2013, my MS in 2014 and my PhD in 2017.
COLLEEN: So Erin, who, yeah — she’s not quite 30 —
SUE: It’s unbelievable!
COLLEEN: Yeah! So just for background, Erin is not an amputee, nor is she a doctor. But she does know a lot about plastic.
ERIN: I had an inkling that I wanted to do something challenging in the engineering field, and I chose plastics because it was something that I could see being used in pretty much any industry.
COLLEEN: Well, at The Story Exchange, Sue, we’ve been quite critical of plastic.
SUE: Yes. We’ve even called it a scourge on the planet.
COLLEEN: Yeah, yeah we did! And it is —
SUE: Especially single-use plastic.
COLLEEN: But that's not what we're talking about here.
SUE: No — we're talking about medical-grade plastic here.
SUE (from tape): Can you put plastics inside the human body, then, for a long time?
ERIN: You definitely can. The FDA regulates materials for that purpose, and there's some really incredible compounds that actually will biodegrade inside your body over time, so that your body can actually reintegrate and strengthen around a specific plastic part.
SUE (from tape): Wow.
COLLEEN: Erin likes to remind people that plastic really has its uses.
SUE: Of course, especially when it comes to medical devices.
COLLEEN: It's cheap, it's durable, it's malleable.
SUE: While still an undergraduate at UMass Lowell, Erin started to work with another student, Jonathan de Alderete, to build a prosthetic hand.
ERIN SOT: So this is the myoelectric hand. You can see with all the wires that it would connect to the little ear cuff. The myoelectric 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 EEG — basically your concentration, your brain power — and that would allow you to open and close the hand.
COLLEEN: That's super-impressive.
SUE: We should mention that Erin's father is a plastic engineer in the medical device industry.
COLLEEN: So some of this might come naturally to her.
SUE: Of course. Growing up her dad...
ERIN: ...he would bring some pieces home and show me what he was working on, and I always thought it was really cool.
COLLEEN: So back to this prosthetic hand...
SUE: Yes. It's a mechanical hand, basically.
COLLEEN: It was originally supposed to be made mostly from metal.
ERIN: And I came in and said, “Hey, maybe we could make this a little cheaper using plastic.”
COLLEEN: And around that time...
ERIN: We saw all these posters around for free pizza, and this thing called DifferenceMaker, so we ended up going to the meeting with a couple of friends.
COLLEEN: Long story short — they entered their idea into this new campus competition, which encourages students to develop real solutions to real problems.
SUE: They did some research and found that too many amputees in developing nations lacked access to affordable prosthetics.
COLLEEN: Here's a soundbite from the DifferenceMaker competition in 2013 — this is Jonathan.
JONATHAN SOT: So in a lot of cases where you see people who’ve had a limb blown off, or had to be amputated due to infection, they don't necessarily have the facilities to get the really high quality prosthetics that we can do...
COLLEEN: They won first prize and $5,000...
SUE: ...which really started them on their journey.
COLLEEN: We'll tell you more, including a giant pivot they made, after a brief break.
COMMERCIAL: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides
inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. If you like what you’re hearing, check out our podcast featuring MIT-graduate Tish Scolnik, whose startup Grit is designing the mountain bike of wheelchairs.“Our Freedom Chair is specially designed to help users travel on really rough terrain, whether that’s a hiking trail, or through thick grass, or on the beach.” It's Episode 20: Reinventing the Wheelchair.
COLLEEN: We've been sharing the story of Erin Keaney, who started out designing affordable prosthetics with a eight-member student team at UMass Lowell.
SUE: The team got smaller as other students went into master's programs...
COLLEEN: ...until it was really just Erin and Jonathan, who...
SUE: Spoiler alert!
COLLEEN: ...is now her husband and business partner!
ERIN: Yeah, I know. I call him my co-founder any time we're talking about the company, and then I call him my husband if I'm not talking about the company (laughter).
COLLEEN: So, after they won the campus program in 2013...
ERIN: ...we started pushing these ideas to clinics, cold calling them around the country and around the world.
COLLEEN: And they weren't finding a ton of interest in the mechanical hand.
ERIN: And then we met a hand surgeon in Boston who 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?”
COLLEEN: Erin and Jon did a major pivot...
SUE: ...and spent the next year developing an adjustable prosthetic leg.
SOT: (machine whirring) We’re at about four or five million cycles now. So this is more than most people would walk in about four or five years.
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.
COLLEEN: And again, to make this more affordable...
ERIN: The average cost of a prosthetic in the U.S. and UK is about $10,000.
COLLEEN: ...Erin used her knowledge of medical-grade plastic to replace the much more expensive metal that's traditionally used in prosthetics...so the cost of hers is considerably less.
ERIN: Our limb will cost $250 to fit an amputee in total. We are working to drive those numbers down as we increase our volume and scale to full manufacturing.
SUE (from tape): Where do you make them?
ERIN: We currently make our product in this room! We currently take stock material and CNC machine...the pieces...
COLLEEN: Sue, you visited their coworking space for a video that we made — and people could watch that video at www.thestoryexchange.org. What did this look like?
SUE: So they have a big room inside this massive coworking space at UMass. And in this room, they have what looks like a massive 3D printer/oven, and that’s where they make the really innovative part of their prosthetic, which is called the pylon.
COLLEEN: And the “pylon” is the piece that connects an amputee’s knee to an artificial foot — like the shinbone, basically. It’s made of plastic rods that can be made shorter or longer.
ERIN: So that kids, as they grow, can just adjust their prosthetic, and not have to go to the doctor and get things fixed; and really just live their lives as they want to. We have the patent on adjustable, prosthetic limbs.
COLLEEN: It didn't take Erin long to see this prosthetic in use.
ERIN: So right after the DifferenceMaker program, we were able to go that winter to India for the first time.
COLLEEN: India, by sheer size of its population, is one of the largest markets for amputees.
SUE (from tape): Yeah, I'd like to hear the story of the first person you helped.
ERIN: The first amputee that we were able to fit was a 65-year-old farmer.
COLLEEN: Things didn't go exactly as planned...
ERIN: We put the prosthetic limb together and we had him stand up...and he immediately collapsed! We were like, “Oh my gosh! This is over. Something went wrong.”
SUE: The farmer was fine!
ERIN: He caught himself on the chair.
SUE: Erin quickly realized that the issue was with the socket — the part that covers an amputee’s stump — not their product.
COLLEEN: After an adjustment, the farmer tried again.
ERIN: He’s been walking on our leg for four years now, which is really exciting.
COLLEEN: Today, six years since Erin and Jonathan incorporated Nonspec, over 200 amputees worldwide are using their leg prosthetic.
SUE: They've won numerous awards.
ERIN AND JONATHAN SOT: Thank you so much for your time!
COLLEEN: That's Erin and Jonathan last summer at the Empowering People awards competition, winning a $33,000 prize.
SUE: Erin’s also been a finalist for the Cartier's Women Initiative Awards.
ERIN: And I met incredible women from all over the world who just are doing amazing things. It makes it feel real, like, this is something that can be done, and don't be afraid to do it.
COLLEEN: Erin and Jonathan have managed to raise $1 million for Nonspec.
SUE: And their prosthetics are now being used in India, Rwanda and the Philippines.
COLLEEN: Erin says she continues to be inspired by the impact her devices have on people's lives.
ERIN: Just seeing people be able to return to their favorite sport, like playing soccer; 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.
COLLEEN: We thank Erin Keaney for sharing her story.
SUE: We thank you for listening.
COLLEEN: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org — or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Bestor Cram. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.