Digital Open Winners: From pocket-sized Altoids tin hack, big dreams emerge

Institute for the Future teamed up with Sun Microsystems and Boing Boing Video to co-host the Digital Open, an online tech expo for teens 17 and under around the world.

In this video, you'll meet awesome 16 year old Nick Brenn. His crafty Altoids tin hacks led to a winning "Electronikits" project for the Digital Open, which sells electronics kits for pocket-sized tin-mod flashlights and other DIY oddities.

I loved his answer to the "Who is this project for?" part of the Digital Open Questionnaire: "Anyone with a passion for being a DIY-er and a fiend for building cool projects. Who wouldn't want a sweet Altoids LED Flashlight? You could have the freshest flashlight on the block! Or an Altoids night-light! It is rare to find someone with such cool projects as you would have!"

Nick tells us more about how "Electronikits" came to be, below and after the jump:

nickbrenn5.jpg It all started with instructions that I posted on, on how to build a "Super Awesome Altoids MINI Flashlight." Soon after winning a contest on Instructables, I was contacted by a sales associate at the science supply company Edmund Scientific. I was like, "WOW!", someone wants to buy kits from me that I don't even have! This was an opportunity too good to pass up.

I created my business known as NGB Enterprises. To sell to Edmunds, I needed a tax i.d, and since I was a minor, I created a "dba" (doing business as), under my mom's business. So in just months, I had established a business based on instructions I submitted that could be viewed by the whole world! So I then bought the necessary components for the kits that Edmunds wanted to buy, and I shipped them out to the company. I was paid, I had a profit and life was good! I wanted to keep this going, and I did not want this to be a one time thing. So in order to keep with "openness," I did not take down the instructions that I posted on the Instructables website, because I was confident that I did not have to worry about anyone trying to do something silly with my work, and I used those instructions for my kits.

Read more of Nick's story here, with links to features about his projects at HowStuffWorks and other science-y sites.

Read more about the youth competition in IFTF's press release announcing Digital Open winners.


  1. Not impressed. At his age I was building amplified AM radios and logic gates out of transistors, later on a anonymous robot using a basic stamp chip all without kits. The novelty of building a flashlight is great but not at that age.

    1. As a matter of fact Mister Cranky Pants, my cousin built an electric eye out of stuff in his kitchen drawers. When he was eight. I guess that utterly negates your accomplishments? Right?


  2. SirWompus, you win the ultimate Troll Power award for the day — making fun of a teenager who’s trying to do something interesting with technology, and botching the facts about his accomplishments? Way to be a total douche. Nick is a cool kid, and it takes a real jerk to try to rain on a young person’s parade like that.

  3. ohhh SirWompus i believe you might want to put some ice on that Xeniburn. it’s going to leave a mark, but you should regain full use of your faculties — eventually.

  4. Agreed, flashlights are a good start, but nothing to write home about. Then again, if neither of his parents are technically inclined and don’t “work with their hands” then he should get a pat on the back for, most likely, going against the grain and following his heart.

  5. Although the flashlight is basic, he started an awesome business, which is something that many teenagers do not have the opportunity to start. The fact that he started a business in the midst of the recession is stunning…and at only 16. Props to this kid.

  6. Starting the business is cool, but not taking down the instructions and locking them down is the really cool part. What’s that? People will still pay for kits even with the instructions freely available to DIY? That takes guts on his part, because it’s bucking what most would consider ‘common sense’, and yet it works.

  7. Nick’s documentation and business are far more impressive than the project itself. It’s one thing to cobble something together but not everyone can explain the process for others.

    That being said, a true hack of an Altoids tin would use some property of the tin like its capacitance to vary the beam output.

    With Nick’s project, the Altoids tin isn’t strictly necessary: you simply embed those components in something electrically non-conductive like Silly Putty and you have a “self-adhesive ergonomic autoconformal flashlight.” (I leave the pocket lint problem to future inventors.)

    Best quote: “I wanted to keep this going, and I did not want this to be a one time thing.” — I hope he does.

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