A lack of affordable and customizable prosthetic options can be a roadblock to providing practical solutions to amputees. To provide an alternative, Jonathan Perez de Alderete created a nonspecific prosthesis that could be used for any amputation and was simplified enough to fabricate at a low cost.
“An unfortunate engineer habit we have is often we will recognize a problem and try to solve it,” Alderete, president of Nonspec and graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said. “For my mechanical engineering capstone project I proposed to design a prosthetic hand, but I wanted all of the electronic components to end up in just the palm of the hand so it could fit to any patient who needed it.”
The prosthesis, which is currently unnamed, is a low-cost limb that grows to fit the patient while maintaining a natural shape and feel. It can be weighted to encourage balanced muscle development and a normal spine curve. The prosthetic skin is made from canvas, providing protection to the interior of the limb and customization options for the patient.
“Our original plan was to develop a product that would fit children, but as we began going along in the process we realized it can fit almost everyone,” Erin Keaney, vice president of Nonspec and graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told O&P Business News. “Our goal is to fit any amputation site and be able to adjust to fit patients as they grow.”
Working in the University of Massachusetts Lowell facilities, students working on the project were able to focus on the cost of the materials they needed, making it easy to create a low-cost prototype.
“We have focused on reducing cost in every way possible by finding where we can reuse a lot of the components within the design and also where we could take multiple components and make them into one, making sure they are easily machinable and fit into the specs for our manufacturing process,” Keaney said.
As they develop their product, Alderete, Keaney and their colleagues have been speaking with practitioners and amputees, aiming to gather a group of testers to finish an initial release of 1,000 limbs. Future goals include marketing their product in the United States and overseas as an inexpensive limb that, if damaged, can be readily replaced at a low cost. The group also aims to reduce the number of times patients need to replace their prosthesis as they grow, as well as the number of times they have to see a practitioner for adjustments by making them simple enough for patients to do themselves.
“We met with amputees and practitioners to make sure that our product matches what people want. So far we have yet to hear from someone who told us the prosthesis is not what they’re looking for,” Alderete said. “It is not necessarily the product for everyone, but the response to the product is that our approach right now is probable and working.”
Only about a year old, Nonspec began as the Developing Nations Prosthetic team at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge, in which students would pitch ideas and work with mentors to develop new products to meet a set market date.
The group decided to attend a Challenge meeting to see what the program was about. Impressed with the ideas that came out of the first brainstorming session, the group decided to continue with the program, which lasted 4 months of the semester. In weekly meetings, students learned how to develop a business model and how to make an effective market pitch in 3 minutes. At the end of the program, 40 teams pitched their ideas through two rounds and judges chose 10 winners, including Nonspec, who was awarded the title of Campus Wide DifferenceMaker.
“The DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge was a great experience [for Nonspec],” Keaney said. “We gained a multitude of networking opportunities, mentors, business tips and practice throughout the program. Nonspec was honored to be selected as the Campus Wide DifferenceMakers and is grateful to the alumni who helped us secure our first set of funds.”
According to Keaney, after graduating the group plans to continue to build Nonspec as a company. The goal is to keep Nonspec based in Lowell to increase job opportunities for newly graduated students.
“We would like to do our part in the revitalization of Lowell and bring more R&D and manufacturing back to the area,” Keaney said. “This will also allow Nonspec to hire students and graduates from the surrounding institutions, increasing job opportunities and giving back to our community for its continued support of our company.”
Advice for students
For students interested in launching their own product like Nonspec, according to Keaney, it is important to network with everyone and everywhere.
“As students, you have access to professors who have been in the industry and you have access to other students who have a lot of different backgrounds,” Keaney said. “Network in your surrounding community because even though you will find people who say you can’t do this, you will find other people who believe in what you are doing and have some resources that will help you get to where you need to go.”
However, having a supportive group of people to help you will only help if you have the drive to continue to work hard on your project, even with obstacles in your way.
“Personally, one of the biggest roadblocks for this project was starting it. We initially proposed it as a capstone and it was not a pleasant thing to get going. A lot of people were saying it was too complicated, that it is beyond our scope of understanding, that we may be able to do it but we were never going to be able to finish it and to try something smaller,” Alderete said. “At the time it was really disheartening for me.”
But Alderete and the rest of the Nonspec team knew they had something worth pursuing, so they moved forward undaunted.
“It took a lot of time and I would be joking if I said we coasted through with only some rough patches,” Alderete said. “When it comes down to it, just keep moving forward, show people what you are doing and teach them to work on it and people will support you. They’ll find a way to make sure things work.” — by Casey Tingle
Disclosure: Perez de Alderete is president and Keaney is vice president of Nonspec.