Interview: Colorado ‘smart gun’ company wants to help prevent accidental shootings and suicides

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14min 00sec
Rachel Estabrook/CPR News
Kai Kloepfer founded Biofire, a smart gun company, to try to address accidental shootings and suicides. He started working on the idea in high school in Boulder.

When Kai Kloepfer thought about what he could do to help alleviate the problem of gun violence, he was surprised to find out that more people die from suicides and accidental shootings than attacks by other people.

Kloepfer was in high school at the time but was already looking for ways to apply his interest in engineering to the problem. It was just after the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, and Kloepfer, who grew up in Boulder, felt an urgency to do something.

That’s when he started seriously working on how to make guns “smarter,” the same way we have “smart” phones, refrigerators, sprinklers, and doorbells. Guns, by contrast, hadn’t seen that same technological innovation.

Now age 26, more than a decade after Kloepfer started, his company Biofire is bringing a gun to market.

Smart guns have been discussed for many years, though the impact this will have is unknown. Kloepfer talked to Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield about how he hopes his product will reduce accidental shootings and suicides, and about his entrepreneurial journey, from growing up in Colorado to a stint at MIT in Massachusetts, and back to Colorado. 

You can also listen to our first interview with Kloepfer, in 2014, here.


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: You’re selling guns that you say will help prevent people shooting someone by accident. They’re also supposed to help prevent someone using a stolen gun. Explain how it works.

Kai Kloepfer: The Biofire Smart Gun is basically a handgun that has a built-in biometric lock. Anytime that the owner or someone of the owner's choosing is not holding onto that firearm and intending to use it, the firearm is fully locked. And at the same time, it's also instantly accessible. As soon as you pick that firearm up, it recognizes your biometrics either using fingerprint or 3D facial recognition, and then it stays unlocked for as long as the user is holding onto it.

Our big focus is, in particular, around children finding guns in the home, teenagers getting access to firearms, all these use cases where gun owners are not looking for their children or for others to have unintended access to that firearm.

Do you think it could help prevent suicides?

In certain cases, yes, in particular for teenagers, because even if the teenager got access to that firearm, it would be fully locked and unusable. I certainly don't think that the Biofire smart gun is going to change whatever's happening in that teen's life that's having them look to commit suicide in the first place. But suicides that don't have firearms present tend to be substantially less lethal – and so [removing the gun] substantially improves the chance that they might be able to survive that suicide attempt to get help, get treatment or, ideally, not even look to commit suicide in the first place.

And then to a lesser extent, among adult suicides, a minority of those cases are with folks who are using a firearm from a relative or something like that. Any sort of situation where that firearm is being used against the owner's intentions is a case where we think we could have an impact.

As we think of the big picture of gun violence in our communities, what can't be solved by so-called smart guns?

The main areas that we do not see major impacts for smart guns is around violent crime. The number one source of firearms recovered at crime scenes is firearms stolen from cars, etc. And so we could help maybe slow that in a lot of ways, but I don't think that Biofire is going to have a significant impact on violent crime.

The first time we talked with you, the idea was that gun makers would build your fingerprint technology into their guns. Now instead, you are manufacturing the whole gun and selling your own handguns. Why the change?

Over the 10 years that I've been working on this, the number one concern that we've heard from our customers has been about reliability. Like, if I'm going to introduce this additional technology into my firearm, I need to trust that it's always going to be locked when my kid finds it. I also need to trust that it's always going to unlock, if I do need to use that firearm in some sort of home defense situation or something.

We found that a retrofit kit – some device or technology that is incorporated into a traditional firearm, or is an accessory – none of those were particularly reliable. And so we ended up building the entire firearm. That’s the only way that I found that we could build a product that was reliable enough that people could actually trust it with their life. Under the hood, it's a pretty sophisticated piece of engineering.

How did you test it?

One of the reasons we moved out here to Colorado was the engineering talent in the area. Biofire has pretty much exclusively hired aerospace and defense engineers. The kind of engineering principles and approach that goes into building a satellite or a defense system is exactly the same kind of approach that we needed to bring to this.

We had our product in testing for over two years. We brought customers in, we set up a bedroom, sort of, in our loading dock in our office in Broomfield. We turned all the lights out, gave them an unloaded firearm, and then we'd run them through simulated threat scenarios. And we used that to test a lot of the actual design of the product.

"Smart" guns have been in development for a long time, but haven’t caught on. What makes you think they’ll catch on now?

We are using technology that literally did not exist commercially two years ago. The 3D facial recognition technology that we're using is a very cutting-edge piece of technology that was really not reliable enough for consumer use until very, very recently. And so we certainly are benefiting from, I would say, billions of dollars of technology development in other industries, whether that's aerospace, defense, automotive, consumer electronics.

What has motivated you to keep working on this for 10 years?

I actually started working on this right after the Aurora theater shooting. To be very explicit, I don't think our product would address the particular events that happened at Aurora, but as I started to dig in, I realized that the everyday drumbeat of hundreds of Americans who are losing their lives to firearms, suicides, and accidents, I think is something that is very challenging to address via any other method, like regulation. I don't really think – from a practical perspective – regulation is going to have very much impact on events that already nobody intends to have happened. Like, there's no gun owner I've ever talked to who wants their kid to find their gun.

And so, obviously, I was not the first person to think about the idea of a smart gun. James Bond has a smart gun, right? It's been science fiction forever. There have been challenges along the way, but through every hurdle, there's been a light at the end of the tunnel. And I think we sort of need to do this as part of addressing a uniquely American challenge.

What advice do you have for other young people who want to pursue an entrepreneurial dream?

The number one thing for me is iteration and fail fast. That's a bit cliche, but the vast majority of startups fail. I've been involved in some of the programs here at CU, and there are a lot of opportunities to get involved in entrepreneurship and learn a lot of the fundamentals around how to develop a good business plan, a good idea, and in particular, test those ideas. And so, if you're at college, entrepreneurship centers, things like that, or even if you're not – for me in high school, there were still a lot of resources. I was actually able to go to CU as a high school student and participate in some of their entrepreneurship courses, and so there's a lot of opportunities out there, and it's mostly free resources. I say definitely take advantage of that.