Erin Keaney, 29
Chief operating officer and co-founder
Erin Keaney attended the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering and medical device design and manufacturing. She also received her Ph.D. in plastics engineering.
She held internships at Boston Scientific and Corning Life Sciences.
"I was interested in the plastics industry because it is a critical part of applying almost every engineering practice," Keaney said. "My first real plastics job was a manufacturing internship at Corning Life Sciences in Maine, where I was on the floor improving and validating mold processes, got to spend a week in the tool room and work with a plantwide team to solve a materials problem."
Keaney has also worked as a post-doc researcher and adjunct faculty member at UMass Lowell. She co-founded Lowell, Mass.-based Nonspec, which makes affordable, adjustable and sustainable prosthetics from medical-grade plastic, in 2014.
She was the winner of the MassChallenge in 2017 and Cartier Women's Initiative Award in 2018. Keaney is the immediate past chair of the Next Generation Advisory Board for the Society of Plastics Engineers.
Lynzie Nebel, plastics engineer at Tech Tank and co-founder of Advocates for Plastics Careers, nominated Keaney for Rising Stars.
"Erin is incredibly smart, personable, and driven," Nebel said. "The girl knows how to organize a group and lead them. I worked with her as the NGAB Chair (while the VP of [Young Professionals] for SPE) and I loved seeing how she could take suggestions and turn them into action items that kept to our mission."
Plastics News: Biggest failure and what it taught you?
Keaney: My biggest failure was when a 15-year-old who was wearing our prosthetic limb broke her device. We were so confused because we had tested for what we were told her activity level was. The despair felt from this was worsened by the fact that we were getting drip-fed information from our team on the other side of the world about the situation. After three days, we figured out the girl (who we were told just walks a mile to school and back each day) had played badminton for eight hours two days before the break!
It was incredible to find out that our limb allowed her to get back to her favorite sport and that her family wanted a new one for her right away, despite the issue. We used this information to design an upgraded limb that allows for higher level of activity for our amputees. I learned that that week, that persistence, testing and staying connected with your customers is incredibly valuable in challenging times and that these hiccups aren't the end of the world — they just give you more data to go on.
Q: What advice would you give to a person considering a career in the plastics industry?
Keaney: I would advise them to go on a few plant tours (definitely gets you excited about the opportunities) and talk to others about why they love what they do. I also encourage students to get technical background, but also try to get some education in the business space as well, as it gives you a well-rounded mentality that employers will love!
Q: If you were CEO of a company, what would you do first?
Keaney: Well, I co-founded a company and am continuing to learn a lot from the experience of running one. The thing we did that I am most proud of is honing in on a need by spending time interfacing and working directly with our customers. We spent months in Indian clinics working directly with amputees and clinicians to develop a solution that fits in the workflow of their operation and continue to collect feedback to improve how we can address their needs. Without the customers voice, we would not have had a chance to make such a meaningful product.
Q: Who is your mentor or someone you look up to?
Keaney: I look up to my (younger) sister-in-law, Gabrielle. She would tell you that she followed in my footsteps into plastics engineering, but I have watched her excel in the community, become passionate about her work and take advantage of the breadth of opportunities the industry has to offer. I am excited to watch her career take off (as she is graduating with her Masters in May).