Late in 2013, a group of investors and entrepreneurs sat onstage at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored event and announced a new initiative: The Smart Tech Foundation would put $1 million toward spurring innovation to create safer gun technologies. The goal would be to sidestep the political gridlock surrounding gun safety and look instead to "free market alternatives." If government couldn’t solve the problem, maybe innovation could.
"We looked at this and said there's been a systemic failure in the level of innovation and capitalization in this area," serial entrepreneur Jim Pitkow told Fast Company at the time. He, alongside angel investor Ron Conway, are two of the foundation's chief backers. "Well, we know how to foster innovation."
More than 200 people applied for a piece of the grant. The foundation chose 15 applicants with what seemed like the most promising ideas, from fingerprint-access guns to firearms that only unlock when activated by a token or ring, and gave each of them a piece of the one million dollar pie to develop their inventions.
But now, two years later, not a single smart gun has entered the market and the Smart Tech Firearms Challenge is running low on funds. So what's next for its recipients and their smart gun inventions?
"What next? That’s the million dollar question," says Jonathan Mossberg, who received a $100,000 grant for his ring-activated iGun technology. At the outset, he and the 14 other grantees had to set personal project goals, then provide the foundation with monthly progress reports. How they were allowed to spend the money depended on how advanced their idea was; those innovators with a concept but no product could put the money toward research and development only. More advanced projects could shell out for things like marketing or market testing.
Mossberg used his grant to hunt for market validation, which he said he found after taking his iGun technology to police departments and schools. "These guys said, 'This is neat. I see where it would be applicable.' That really told me that A) this is an important thing and B) there’s a big market out there."
Nineteen-year-old Timmy Oh used his $10,000 grant to develop an idea for a biometric gun safe. "Over two years, the Smart Tech Foundation has helped us take this idea from concept to actual working prototype," says Oh.
When asked how he felt about the Smart Tech Firearm Challenge two years after launch, Pitkow tells me he is "beyond thrilled" with the results. "We saw a ton of innovation and our innovators have made great progress," he says.
But now those same innovators are running into a problem: They have potentially groundbreaking and life-saving technologies that few seem to want to put additional money into. That’s because the political minefield surrounding the gun debate, and the lobbying power of the NRA, make the gun industry a risky venture.
"Gun control supporters advocate laws to prohibit the sale of firearms that do not possess 'smart' technology, as a way to prohibit the manufacture of traditional handguns, raise the price of handguns that would be allowed to be sold and, presumably, to imbed into handguns a device that would allow guns to be disabled remotely," the NRA's official position on smart guns reads. "The NRA doesn’t oppose the development of 'smart' guns, nor the ability of Americans to voluntarily acquire them. However, NRA opposes any law prohibiting Americans from acquiring or possessing firearms that don’t possess 'smart' gun technology."
On Monday evening, White House officials said that President Obama plans to announce executive actions to expand background checks and more strongly enforce gun laws, as well as step up smart gun research and access to mental health care. He tweeted:
Though some other steps are being made to clear the way for the sale of smart guns—New Jersey recently passed a bill requiring gun retailers to carry at least one smart gun three years after they are vetted by authorities and available for sale—they are nascent.
"We all thought there would be more financial leads coming out of this," says Mossberg. "There weren’t, unfortunately. That didn’t materialize." Having received the market validation he needed, he was hoping to start production soon. But to his disappointment, he hasn’t received a single offer from additional backers.
The foundation’s president, Margot Hirsch, says bringing these products to market was never the end goal. "Did we see getting products on shelves? No, because we didn’t provide them with all the capital they needed to do that," she says. Instead, the hope was that the Smart Tech Foundation’s seed money would draw national attention to smart-gun technology, and in doing so, usher its funding and adaptation.
But what’s holding these technologies back isn’t a lack of awareness. It’s a lack of acceptance. A lot of gun owners are skittish about anything that even slightly sounds like it could limit access to firearms. A gun lock is still a gun lock, even if it recognizes its user's fingerprint instantaneously. The fact that many of the people behind smart-gun technology are actually gun enthusiasts and NRA members themselves doesn’t matter in a political climate that paints being pro-gun and being pro-gun safety as mutually exclusive.
"We certainly knew that the nature of the issue was one that’s very polarized and intensely debated," says Pitkow. "This sector has its own challenges. Do you want to fund a gun that’s arguably smarter and will save lives but will also be used to kill people? They’re still guns."
And yet, both Pitkow and Conway say they’re pleased with the outcome of the challenge. "There are capital challenges, distribution challenges, and market demand challenges, all of which are solvable," says Pitkow. "This is what entrepreneurship is about, is doing the impossible."
Conway says the hope was that they would fund multiple projects, some of which would turn into companies. "Failure would be that not one idea was commercialized," he says. "In this case we’re going to commercialize several of the ideas."
That remains to be seen, actually, although one grant recipient, Omer Kiyani, received additional funding from outside investors for his Identilock biometric fingerprint-reading gun lock. He wants to start manufacturing it in Detroit in early 2016. "There are enough good, smart, wise people excited about this product that we’re fairly confident we’d be able to put it on store shelves," he says. A handful of innovators are turning to crowdfunding campaigns to raise additional money for their products.
The Smart Tech Foundation will continue to help the grant recipients by connecting them with the media and potential investors, but at this point all it has left to offer is non-monetary support. "We’ve got limited resources, unfortunately," says Hirsch. "We’re trying our best."
There is currently no plan for another challenge. "We’d need at least a million dollars and we don’t have that," Hirsch says. "Hopefully someday these products will get to market. My fingers are crossed for them. This country really needs it."