Silicon Valley likes to think of itself as the ultimate problem solver. Today, Ron Conway, a prolific angel investor (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zappos), and serial entrepreneurs Jim Pitkow and Don Kendall are tackling one of the most urgent and complex problems in America: the epidemic of gun violence. As Pitkow told the audience this morning at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored event in San Francisco, he and his colleagues want to entice a wave of inventors and entrepreneurs to help save lives. The carrot: a million dollars. At least.
Think of it as an X Prize for smarter, safer firearms—one that's open to anyone with a compelling idea. Though Pitkow and company aren't working with the X Prize Foundation, it was the inspiration. They've created the Smart Tech Foundation to launch the Smart Tech Firearms Challenge, backed by a handful of Silicon Valley heavy hitters who prefer to remain anonymous for now.
"We looked at this and said there's been a systemic failure in the level of innovation and capitalization in this area," Pitkow tells Fast Company. "Well, we know how to foster innovation."
The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership of any country, and about 31,000 Americans die from firearm-related deaths every year. For children between 10 and 19, gun violence is the second leading cause of death.
The organizers of the Smart Tech Foundation don't want to wait for legislative remedies. It's been nearly 20 years since the last major federal gun law passed. They prefer "free market alternatives," Pitkow says. Through the challenge, they aim to accelerate the development of technologies that could prevent accidental deaths and reduce violent crime. Those could include guns that incorporate fingerprint biometrics (like the ones used by the new iPhone) to prohibit anyone other than the owner from firing it.
This is the first in a series of public prizes (in some cases, tiered grants, to help innovators develop and test their prototypes), says Pitkow, one of the foundation's board members. The next tech challenges will focus on data, public safety, and brain science—areas that could also contribute to diminishing violence.
Conway was motivated by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December. Twenty first-graders and six teachers were killed. The tragedy coincided with Conway's annual holiday party, where he issued a call to action to his A-list crowd. Early this year, he and Pitkow launched the Tech Committee to Reduce Gun Violence. Before long, that organization joined forces with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit created by parents in Newtown.
The parents and venture capitalists told the story of their unusual partnership on stage in a live narrative session at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored event on Wednesday. They shared how, in the wake of the mass shooting, they were asking the same questions: namely, what can technology do to reduce such violence?
"After losing Dylan, I was not focused on anything but myself or our family. But so much was going on around us," says Nicole Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son Dylan at Sandy Hook, and is now the communications director for Sandy Hook Promise. "Dylan was autistic and once described himself as a butterfly. I started talking about how all the children we lost were our butterflies who were going to be catalysts for change."
In March, the two groups announced the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative, an effort in which venture capitalists committed to vetting and investing in companies working on promising solutions.
"We’re looking for the ideas that haven’t been thought of yet," Pitkow said. "Volvo created the three-point safety belt, introduced it to the marketplace, and the market decided safety was worth paying for. So this has been done before."
However, soon after launching the Innovation Initiative, Pitkow and his colleagues discovered an immature market lacking enough inventors and entrepreneurs. Hence, the big-money tech challenge. "We both come at it from what's possible, not why it can't be done," says Pitkow. "That's the entrepreneur's perspective."
They're hoping that the money, which they anticipate will exceed the initial $1 million as more donors join the effort, will attract enough talent and creativity to begin to do what gridlocked federal and state governments haven't done.
"Dylan died when he was 6 years old, so we'll never know what his contribution to society would have been," said Hockley. "But if his name can be associated with real change, that's a legacy I want to help him achieve."