With help from tech VC philanthropist Ron Conway, engineer Omer Kiyani is trying to build smart guns that will reduce gun violence—and earn him a hefty profit.
Until a few years ago, Ron Conway focused his philanthropic giving on making San Francisco’s public institutions work better. The California-based venture capitalist—an early investor in BuzzFeed, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zappos—wanted to improve the city’s public transportation, police and hospitals by weaving innovative technology throughout their operations. But over the course of one night in 2012, Conway found a new goal for his giving: the development of technology that could reduce gun violence.
On December 14 of that year, Conway was hosting a Christmas party at his home. One of his guests was former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who had been shot in the head during an assassination attempt the year before, sustaining brain damage from which she will never fully recover. The party was unusually subdued. Earlier that day, a disturbed young man named Adam Lanza had murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Ct. The eerie coincidence of having Giffords at his home on the day of a mass shooting was, Conway would say, “a sign.” He needed to get involved.
But Conway didn’t want to donate to a charity or immerse himself in a political quagmire; he was skeptical of traditional philanthropy and doubted that political activism would change anything. Instead, Conway believed in the power of technology to disrupt social gridlock. In March 2013, along with members of the Newtown community, he helped found Sandy Hook Promise, a grassroots organization devoted to the prevention of gun violence. Sandy Hook Promise would support antiviolence entrepreneurs with funding and development advice, as well as directing venture capital to related startups. The same year, along with tech entrepreneurs Jim Pitkow and Don Kendall, Conway helped found the nonprofit Smart Tech Challenges Foundation; the organization announced that it would award at least $1 million to inventors and entrepreneurs working on innovative technology to help reduce gun violence. “This was an opportunity for Silicon Valley to address an extremely polarizing and difficult problem in a different way, through innovation and technology,” says Margot Hirsch, president of Smart Tech Challenges. (Ron Conway declined to be interviewed for this article.) “Within a year from now,” Conway said at the time, “we will be able to point to the Google, Facebook and Twitter who are working on gun safety.”
One of the first entrepreneurs to receive a grant from Smart Tech Challenges was a young engineer named Omer Kiyani. A 2004 graduate of Purdue University majoring in engineering, Kiyani came to the problem of gun safety from the most intimate of experiences. When he was 16, he was riding in a car with a group of friends when a bullet crashed through one of the windows and into the side of his mouth. Kiyani would never find out who shot him, but the agonizing recovery still serves as a reminder of the incident. Almost two decades later, Kiyani declined to provide me details of the shooting—he has grown reluctant to talk about it—but in a recent Consumer Electronics Show presentation, he recalled, “I remember looking back in the window—a flash. A boom. And the next thing I remember—spitting a bullet out of my mouth… Had the bullet been a millimeter in another direction, I wouldn’t be here today.”
After Purdue, Kiyani launched a career based on using technology to address safety issues. His first big challenge came with a job at Bosch, the multinational firm that manufactures appliances and auto parts, working on improvements to the controllers that deploy air bags. “The majority of my career I worked on air bags, and the idea of air bags is, it’s a very simple device,” Kiyani says now. “You inflate an air bag, and you save a life, and this has to work when all other systems have failed. So I am used to working on systems that require tech answers.”
After the births of his three children, Kiyani began to revisit the issue of guns. “I’m a gun owner and I have kids in the house,” he explains. “I wanted to keep them safe from the gun I bought to protect them.” He began to develop a clamp—he calls it Identilock—that would prevent a gun from being fired by anyone but its owner, and in 2013 Smart Tech Challenges awarded Kiyani $100,000 to support the project.
“It unlocks very quickly, it’s easy to use and it has the potential to save lives and prevent injuries because it will keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people,”says Hirsch.
There are no smart guns—typically, weapons that incorporate fingerprint or radio wave technology to ensure that only the authorized user can fire the weapon—now sold in the United States, primarily because gunmakers won’t make them, saying that there isn’t a market for such devices. But Kiyani’s idea was for an attachment covering the trigger of any gun that could only be unlocked by the user’s fingerprint; he compares it to a safe in which to store a gun, only much smaller.
“He has a technology that is a very straightforward trigger-lock device that uses biometric technology,” says Hirsch. “It unlocks very quickly, it’s easy to use and it has the potential to save lives and prevent injuries because it will keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people.”
As a gun owner, Kiyani wanted a device that wouldn’t keep someone from firing his or her gun in a hurry. “The quickest safety that I found took about five seconds for me to be able to use my gun, and that’s not a realistic solution,” he explains. “If you’re driving your car, and it took you five seconds to unlock your brakes and stop, that wouldn’t be realistic.” The pre-production model he created works in under a second—when your finger covers a sensor, the clamp simply falls off the gun—but Kiyani considers even that too slow. “I’m working on increasing it to what it takes for an air bag to go off: In under 300 milliseconds, everything is done.”
Kiyani’s will be the first of the Smart Tech Challenges innovations to go to market. The Detroit-based company Kiyani founded to develop and sell the device, called Sentinl, will market Identilock for $319. “We make an attractive profit once at volume at this price,” he told the audience at CES. Identilock should be in stores this summer, but you can pre-order for $199 with a 10 percent deposit from getidentilock.com.
Kiyani, who often mentions that he’s an NRA member, seems to be taking pains to market the device in a manner intended to reassure gun owners that he’s on their side. They are, after all, his potential customers. “Access your firearm as quickly as your iPhone,” says the Identilock website. “Identilock celebrates your right to bear arms.” The Smart Tech Challenges website includes a quote from Kiyani that reads, “Because a great number of guns are used for home security purposes, people want to be able to unlock their weapon at a moment’s notice. They don’t want to fumble with a gunlock when they need their weapon.”
There is no mention of the reasons gun control advocates typically support smart-gun technology: that it makes teen suicide less likely, or accidental discharge by, say, children almost impossible; or that it makes it harder for stolen guns to be used in criminal acts. “You’ve got to remember,” he told CES, “[that] the people who are most affected [by gun violence] other than the immediate family of a victim…is people like me, who own guns, because we’re painted by the same brush. Typically, a gun owner is a responsible person who wants safety.”
Gun store owners nationwide declined to start selling any smart-gun technology,for fear of initiating the three-year countdown in New Jersey.
But in our conversations, Kiyani talked more about what Identilock is designed to prevent, rather than what it’s designed to facilitate. “Where Identilock functions is basically accidental discharges,” he says. “Or if somebody else gets access to your gun, they can’t shoot you. Or teen suicide. Those are big parts of gun violence.”
With the technical challenges of building Identilock largely resolved, Kiyani now faces another hurdle: Will anyone buy it? He plans to market the gunlock through gun shops rather than gunmakers, he says, because gunmakers are cautious about new technology. It’s also possible that the gunmakers don’t feel there’s a market for such products; a 2013 study released by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gunmakers’ industry group, suggested that only 14 percent of potential gun owners would buy a smart gun. However, a January 2016 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that some 60 percent of Americans thinking of buying a new handgun would be willing to purchase a smart or childproof gun. Of course, it’s also possible that gun manufacturers don’t want to endorse technology that could play a role in mandatory gun-control measures.
In 2002, for example, New Jersey passed a law mandating that its gun shops sell only smart guns three years after the technology was introduced. But the law had an unintended consequence: gun store owners nationwide declined to start selling any smart-gun technology, for fear of initiating the three-year countdown in New Jersey. State legislators are now trying to amend the law to mandate that gun dealers must carry at least one smart gun in their inventory, a considerably watered-down version of the original.
The NRA, typically opposed to any gun restrictions, seems open to the use of smart-gun technology—as long as it’s voluntary. “We do not oppose smart-gun technology,” says spokesperson Amy Hunter. “We oppose mandates that require people to buy anything. We leave it up to the consumer.”
That, says Kiyani, is precisely what Conway and his foundation were doing by giving his technology a chance to grow. “He definitely planted a seed with this innovation,” Kiyani says. “He’s letting the market decide.”
—With Rose Arce
RON CONWAY IS JUST ONE PHILANTHROPIST WHOSE DONATIONS HAVE HELPED FOR-PROFIT COMPANIES CREATE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES THAT DO GOOD IN THE WORLD. HERE ARE THREE OTHERS.
Who: Bill and Melinda Gates
What: The Haiti Mobile Money Initiative
THE CHAOS AND DEVASTATION THAT FOLLOWED the 2010 earthquake inHaiti was intense, and relief flooded in from both government agencies and private foundations. However, among the infrastructure that was destroyed were one-third of Haiti’s banks and financial institutions, which made it difficult for aid organizations to send funds to the country. Mobile banking had already proved successful in African countries, and a viable mobile money-transfersystem would make it easier to send aid to Haiti in the event of another crisis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation combined forces with the U.S. Agency for International Development to offer a series of cash prizes to mobile phone companies that developed viable mobile banking applications. In January 2011,Jamaica-based Digicel took home $2.5 million for being the first company to provide a mobile banking option, called Tcho Tcho; Voila, a Port-au-Prince-based company, was second and received $1 million. Digicel later acquiredVoila, and in July 2012, Digicel received $3.2 million more for reaching a mile-stone of one million mobile transactions with its service, now called Mon Cash.
Who: Wendy Schmidt
What: Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XChallenge
THE 2010 DEEPWATER HORIZON OIL SPILL, one of the largest in history, drew the world’s attention to how ill-prepared companies such as BP were to deal with such catastrophes. In response, Wendy Schmidt, an avid sailor and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation (her husband is Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet and former Google CEO), sponsored the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XChallenge. The competition, presented by the X Prize Foundation with Schmidt as the lead donor, challenged companies to create technologies that would recover oil from spills significantly faster and more efficiently than anything else available. The challenge began in July 2010, and in October 2011, Schmidt awarded $1 million in prize money to first-place winner Elastec/American Marine, for its Elastec X Skimmer. Using patented grooved-disc technology, the Elastec X Skimmer recovers oil from a spill three times faster than the previous industry leader. Schmidt hosted a second competition, which ran from January 2014 to July 2015, to challenge companies to find a better, more accurate way of measuring ocean chemistry.
Who: Steve and Jean Case
What: Pitch for Lagos
NEW PRODUCTS AREN’T THE ONLY WAYS TO DRIVE CHANGE; some philanthropists see the value in giving to companies that offer services as well. AOL cofounder Steve Case and his wife Jean Case held a competition designed to support new startups in Lagos, Nigeria, through their philanthropy, the Case Foundation. In partnership with Nigeria’s Co-Creation Hub, the Case Foundation offered a $55,000 prize to the most promising Nigerian startup that pitched during a one-day event in July 2015. The winner, a Lagos-based recycling company called Wecyclers, combats the waste crisis in growing cities. Wecyclers incentivizes recycling in areas where waste management is often an afterthought: Lagos’ slums, where approximately 11.9 million of the city’s 18 million people live. Using bicycles, Wecyclers’ employees collect and weigh residents’ recycling, awarding them a certain number of points per pound, which they exchange for rewards such as household goods or money. The company then sorts and sells the materials to recycling companies. The value of the recyclable plastic and metal in Lagos alone is estimated at $700 million, so Wecyclers is tapping into a vast market. Wecyclers cofounder Bilikiss Kola-Abiola told Ventures Africa the company plans to hire an outside consultant to help scale up the business and open a recycling hub in another state with its prize winnings.