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Hampton teens launch tech startup Smile Stand, bringing hands-free device to market

Emily Stimmel
January16/ 2016

The teen founders of burgeoning tech startup Omnicode are barely in high school but they’ve already brought their first product to market. The idea for Smile Stand  — a hands-free device stand with built-in earbud storage — began to take shape last spring, when Chris Ference took an engineering class called Automation Tech at Hampton Middle School. There, Ference learned how to prototype and design products. He also developed a working knowledge of the proper tools and software to bring his ideas to life.

“After realizing the capabilities of tools such as laser-cutting and 3-D printing, I started to design things for inconveniences I had, such as not being able to watch video hands-free,” says Ference.

With the support of Automation Tech teacher Glenn Geary, Ference 3-D printed a prototype of what would become the Smile Stand. His friend Joey Cafaro helped Ference brainstorm improvements to the stand. Tangled earbuds had long been a nuisance, so Cafaro and Ference set their minds to unraveling a solution.

Smile Stand founders are all smiles.

With school over for the summer, Ference no longer had access to Automation Tech equipment. Enter TechShop. The Bakery Square-based hackerspace and learning center offered support and ideas from other bright minds, as well as access to resources like a laser cutter.

By the time the boys began ninth grade at Hampton High School last fall, the design was finalized. The pair launched a Kickstarter campaign — with video production assistance and consultation from Hampton juniors Justin Deible and Ference’s brother John — to reproduce the Smile Stand prototype. In just 32 days, the campaign was fully funded.

The boys credit Omnicode’s success in part to the encouraging adults in their lives.

“Mr. Geary and all of our parents offered the continuous support that we needed to make the project come alive,” says Ference.

The Smile Stand is available in a range of sizes to hold smartphones and small tablets. Manufactured here in Pittsburgh, the sleek, portable stand is composed of a durable acrylic material and packaged sustainably in upcycled cardboard.

What’s next for Omnicode? Cafaro and Ference are working on the early stages of their next invention and hope to continue growing the company and its product line — all while keeping busy with cross-country and student council (Cafaro) and pursuing an interest in photography and design (Ference).

The Smile Stand is available for $13 through the Omnicode Etsy shop.

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.