By Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle
But gun violence has so far proved difficult to disrupt.
Obama tried to cheerlead innovation during his emotional White House speech last week outlining his executive orders on gun control. “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint,” Obama said in calling for high-tech help, “why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?”
Even with plugs from a tech-friendly president, smart-gun entrepreneurs say the nation’s fierce partisan divide over guns has made it hard to explain their products to consumers — let alone investors.
Despite the support of influential venture capitalists such as Ron Conway, who co-sponsored a foundation that gave $1 million to 15 smart-gun entrepreneurs, they have struggled to raise money, particularly in Silicon Valley.
Though many Second Amendment advocates say they have no problem with smart-gun technology, the gun lobby has not embraced the innovations due to concerns that the devices will become mandatory. And big manufacturers remain hesitant to work with the fledgling technologists for fear of alienating customers or, worse, the politically powerful National Rifle Association.
On top of all that, some gun-tech entrepreneurs encounter everyday problems that other tech company founders just don’t. Ask Omer Kiyani.
He introduced his gun safety product, Identilock, last week at CES, the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. It is a biometric gun lock, attached to the weapon, that reads a shooter’s fingerprint before unlocking the trigger — almost exactly the product Obama described in his speech.
Kiyani, a Detroit engineer, was excited at the prospect of being one of the first smart-gun products to exhibit at the four-day gathering, which attracts 170,000 industry executives, analysts and journalists eager to scope out the latest gadgets and trends.
But Kiyani said convention organizers wouldn’t even let him bring a dummy weapon to the floor so he could demonstrate his product. Instead, he spent time at his exhibit table standing next to his laptop, which looped a video of his product.
It wasn’t the best way to showcase a device meant to be held.
“This is a premier consumer electronics show,” Kiyani said. “This is where the industry trends are set. And I can’t demo my product?”
The convention’s exhibitor contract allows “no firearms or weapons of any kind ... on the exhibit floor or show premises. The demonstration or production of firearms and weapons is also strictly prohibited.”
It wasn’t just Kiyani who got tripped up by the rule. A convention spokesman said that security personnel banned “a fake gun, a 3-D printed gun, bow and arrow, and a few others” from this year’s show.
Kiyani, who has been working on his product for three years, has been able to get it to market largely by working outside traditional channels. He parlayed a $100,000 grant from Conway’s Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to elevate his product from a concept into something that will be in stores within a year. After amassing a mailing list of thousands, Kiyani began accepting advance orders for Identilock last week for $319.
Other than Conway’s $100,000, Kiyani raised all his money from his home state of Michigan.
As with other gun technology, Silicon Valley funders have largely kept quiet.
“If I was developing an app or software as a service, I would need to be on the West Coast,” Kiyani said. “Fortunately, my VCs include gun owners and appreciate the value I bring.”
6 firms got funding
There isn’t a lot of venture funding out there to be had for gun tech. Between 2006 and the third quarter of 2015, only six gun-tech or gun safety companies received venture funding — worth a combined $110 million — according to statistics compiled for The Chronicle by the National Venture Capital Association.
By comparison, the cybersecurity industry has attracted $10 billion in venture funding since 2012, according to the association.
Silicon Valley’s reticence may be rooted in the fact that “it is uncharted waters for most,” said Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, “but we are excited about the potential for disruption.”
Of the foundation’s 15 grant recipients, Kiyani is the closest to releasing a product. The foundation is not doling out anymore grants while it continues to be in fundraising mode.
Kai Kloepfer has used a $50,000 grant from the foundation to help develop a fingerprint scanner — now in the late prototype phase — that he said can be programmed for multiple users. He expects that it will take another year or two before he can get his product to market.
Part of the reason for that slow timeline is that Kloepfer is designing the gun himself. He said gun manufacturers aren’t interested in adapting smart-gun technology.
They recall what happened to Smith & Wesson, the century-old gun company that signed an agreement with the federal government in 2000 to install smart-gun features on some of its weapons. The company signed the deal as a way to stave off a stream of lawsuits that sought to blame its products for gun deaths.
The deal incensed the politically powerful NRA, which called for a boycott of the company. Within a year, Smith & Wesson’s revenue dropped 40 percent.
“I won’t be able to work with a firearms manufacturer to develop the technology,” Kloepfer said. “A boycott could kill a big company like that. But it’s not going to do anything to a little startup like me.”
The NRA “is not opposed to smart-gun technology,” said Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the association’s Institute for Legislative Action, its political arm. The NRA, she said, just doesn’t want the government dictating what manufacturers should install on their guns.
“We just think that it should be for the consumer to decide. If and when it should be available — go for it,” Hunter said. “We are not in the business of advocating for products.”
Similarly, a spokesman for the firearms industry’s trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said consumers will decide whether they want to purchase smart gun technologies that come to the market.
“We don’t oppose it or any other similar development, and never have,” said Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “What we oppose are government mandates. We want consumers to decide in the civilian marketplace. We want firearms procurement experts to make the decisions in the military and law enforcement markets.”
Kloepfer has spoken to hundreds of people about guns as he’s developed his product. Initially, gun supporters recoil when he describes his product. They think it will make their weapons more prone to fail, or offer authorities a method to take them away.
Yet after a few minutes, many of those conversations soften and become instructive, he said.
Military, law enforcement and others who regularly use firearms have opened Kloepfer’s eyes to problems with his product that he’s been able to correct through some engineering tweaks.
He’s found that much of the rhetoric around gun technology is rooted in what he calls “a public misunderstanding of this issue.”
“If I say I’m putting fingerprint reader on your gun, it’s not gun control. It’s not enabling gun control. It’s only providing the owner an ability to control his own gun,” Kloepfer said.
Kloepfer, an 18-year-old Colorado resident who deferred his admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until next fall, has received positive mentions from CBS News and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. An online video about his product has racked up millions of views.
Yet fundraising is still a challenge.
He’s only a few days from the end of an seeking $70,000 to further his research, but has raised only about 10 percent of that amount.
He hopes that Obama — by invoking how technology can help curb gun violence — will help smart-gun entrepreneurs like him.
Obama urged the federal agencies that buy firearms to look at what kind of existing gun safety can be adopted. He directed the federal government to help advance this research through public-private partnerships — though he didn’t say how much the feds would spend. He instructed the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to “regularly review whether new gun safety technology is available and consistent with operational needs,” according to the White House.
Obama has previously pointed to tech as a way to curb gun violence — with few results. But Conway said this time was different.
“He is going to get government resources behind tech initiatives,” Conway said in an email. “That is a huge step in the right direction to make meaningful progress.”
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