Hot Water Bottle of "Happiness is a warm gun" Project by Francis North

Silicon Valley's Smart Tech Foundation Launches $1 Million Competition For Safer Guns

After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs led by Ron Conway, Jim Pitkow, and Don Kendall decided not to wait for legislative remedies to gun violence.

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.

The lucrative open call for ideas will begin accepting submissions in January. Apply here or email questions to info@stfdn.com.

The panel at Innovation Uncensored San Francisco

"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."

Add New Comment


  • Nick Rubtsov

    In IT we have this saying: "garbage in, garbage out". Reading the article, I see that:

    1. The task isn't clearly defined. What problem they're trying to solve is unclear, and neither is the definition of a "safe gun".

    2. They use flawed and/or irrelevant input data, for example, this "31,000 deaths per year" drivel. If their nebulous goal is to prevent accidents, then the suicides, homicides, and justifiable shootings (i.e. 98+% of that number) are irrelevant. To deal with the rest (i.e. where the trigger was pulled intentionally) via somehow modifying a gun, they need not a "safe" gun, but a non-functioning gun.

    In my line of business (IT) the above constitutes "garbage in". So, somehow, I don't think this project attracted the best and the brightest of Silicon Valley.

  • Harry Ling

    THe vast majority of gun deaths are done by criminals or inside criminal households. They by definition do NOT obey the law , and would always find another way to get the simple firearms that they use. Ban criminals, not guns. If you ban guns, I assure you the assault rate with knives, bats, chemicals, explosives, etc, will go up.

  • Don Tallo

    So, a bunch of reactionary over-educated theorist with no practical knowledge or experience with firearms want to design safer firearms for me. Gee thanks, but no thanks. If it's all the same to you, I think I'll leave the design of my firearms up to the engineers at Smith & Wesson.

  • Dave Rauschenfels

    Sorry, that project is destined to fail. There are enough guns in America right now to be reused and resold for decades to come.

  • jglazier94@gmail.com

    I have a great idea on the mechanics of how fire arms are designed. Would like to get information on how to propose .

  • Matthew McKnight

    "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."

    No. Look at your own studies. The second leading cause of death is listed as "homicide". Firearms aren't specified one way or another, which makes this reference a flagrant lie.

    Gun violence, violence, suicide, and homicide are not the same, and lumping them together to support gun-ban propaganda only reveals that you don't care about the children at all.

    You people disgust me.

  • Bob Harvey

    Safer guns simple fix all new guns should come with a chip that will disable the firing pin when detected this can be installed in all public places min of 50' when detected an alarm should sound so anyone in that area can be warned this device if tampered with should carry a very heavy fine an possible prison time this can be retro fitted to previous guns our law enforcement agency should have the ability to ck for this device if it is not detected then the firearm can be confiscated until the device is installed lets get this done ASAP. Bob Harvey

  • Sev Eighty-nine

    "The firearm can be confiscated until the device is installed" and will never see it's owner again. I can guarantee you, there are still residents in New Orleans who still HAVEN'T HAD THEIR FIREARMS RETURNED that were confiscated in the aftermath of Katrina. Besides, if you knew anything about firearms, you'd know there's VERY LITTLE SPACE to even attempt to install the feel good measures you mentioned. And even IF it could be done (with RELIABLE, key word there) technology, do you really think firearms will still be relatively CHEAP to purchase?

  • Real Dad

    Guns dont kill people. Kids left to be parented by their schools and irresponsible adults allowing kids access to unsecured weapons get kids killed.If you know of a household with kids and unsecured guns and don't report it then you are as guilty if not more so than the irresponsible adult in said household.That said I was raised around and taught gun saftey from a very early age we hunted, target shot, and were taught proper respect for all living things we would never have thought of using a gun to intimidate anyone.We did not ever feel the need to!
    Stop blaming easy access to guns.We don't outlaw cars and they kill far more kids and innocent people than guns have ever!
    Proud Father of five and raising them right even if the rest of you want to blame society for your failures!***

  • Brittany Jolicoeur

    We do not need "safer guns". We need appropriate gun information available to people. Mandatory gun safety courses. Less stigma on guns being a horrible bad thing. No matter what you do, there will be that one ignorant person will mess up. It used to be ok to give KIDS guns. If you want "safer guns" WE NEED A SAFER WORLD. Until the world becomes safer, we as people become less immune to violence, then a gun, a pencil, a knife, or a vehicle will never be "SAFE".

  • justinTimeAgain

    Adding another level to the already existing safety features, is just another point of failure. Completely unacceptable for use on a home defense, or self defense pistol/shotgun/rifle. Safe storage is the responsibility of the owner. If you have children, lock your guns up, and teach the proper handling and safety of firearms. So if they are to find one, or ever use one (which I hope they do someday, via hunting, a range trip, whatever), they know how to properly and safely handle the firearm.

    My pistol is drop safe. Ammo in my pistol, is safer than loose ammo floating around in my trunk.

    My pistol is not idiot-proof. If you disengage the safety mechanisms, you risk discharging the firearm. For me, the only time that happens is when I;m ready to shoot.

    The last thing I want is a ring, a lock, a key, or any device requiring fine-motor skills, getting in the way or failing.

  • dg

    fingerprint scanning tech on trigger so only owner can use it just like an iphone 5s...of course the tech will probably be hacked within 24hrs

  • Mark Cuban

    Except many of these shootings are by people who legally possess their firearm, like the Sandy Hook shooter. This technology might do some good, but not as a substitute for "legislative remedies." Just more nonsensical gun bashing.

  • Just Me

    He did not own a gun, he stole his mom's.........& most Mass shooting's are done with some one else's fire arm.In my humble opinion most of our problem start's with a the moral break down in our country as a whole...Every thing from family structure to religion is being attacked by fringe group's and we allow them to influence our live's & it is & will get worse as long as we keep giving in to the "Politicly correct & anti God".....Oh, And we have to stop letting people make being a politician a career..........Term limit's