LOWELL -- Erin Keaney sat inside DifferenceMaker Central at UMass Lowell last Thursday with a prosthetic device before her. With a limb that is adjustable, the device is a product of years of work and determination to help amputees.
Keaney is vice president and one of the co-founders of Nonspec, a Lowell-based startup company that creates low-cost prosthetics for individuals in developing nations. The 26-year-old Groton native is currently featured in a UMass marketing campaign that highlights the achievements of recent alumni, in which she speaks about her work and passion for plastics engineering. The Ph.D. candidate received her bachelor's degree in 2013 and her master's the following year from UMass Lowell.
"Ideally, we do eventually want to go worldwide, but in the next couple of years we want to focus on making sure that we're expanding in India. There's a couple reasons for that," Keaney said, adding that the team has strived to ensure that they can sell the devices at a cost that is affordable to over 80 percent of the world's amputees. "One is that it's actually easier to get your product started in India than to start outside India and try to break into India, and there's a lot of amputees in that region."
There are 54 million amputees worldwide and 83 percent of them live in developing countries, according to Nonspec. The company grew out of the campus-wide DifferenceMaker program, which teaches students in all majors entrepreneurial skills they can apply in business and the community.
"We got $5,000 (from the DifferenceMaker program) and were like, 'Wow, maybe this is something we could really do,'" she recalled.
Fast forward time and six patients in India are now using the devices, according to Keaney. She vividly remembers the first patient -- a farmer named Hemaraddi from Hubli, a city in the southwestern state of Karnataka. The man suffered from gangrene, a type of tissue death which occurs when there is a loss of blood.
"It was really cool," Keaney said, her mouth stretching into a wide grin. "He was walking up and down and we had mirrors and were video taping it. It was just really exciting to see the work we had been doing over the last couple of years kind of come together for real. And when we were able to send him home with it, it was even better."
For Perez de Alderete, watching their first patient walk on the prosthetic device was one of the most emotionally charged experiences he's ever had.
"On one end as a designer you are terrified because you know if anything goes wrong it is probably your fault, but on the other you are excited to see something you worked on working in the real world," he said.
Steven Tello, UMass Lowell's senior associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development, said in a statement that the school is very proud of the work the Nonspec team has accomplished over the past several years.
"They took an idea, built a team, then applied their education to solving a problem that deeply affects people in developing countries," he said. "A low-cost, adjustable prosthetic limb -- think about the impact a device like this has on the quality of life for an amputee in India or Africa."
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.