CEO of Biofire, Kai Kloepfer, joins Niki remotely in the studio to talk smart guns. They explore the technology that helps make these guns a safer option for home protection, the unique challenges of developing deep tech hardware, and some sobering statistics that keep Kai and his team motivated to help with one small part of a major, uniquely American, public health epidemic.
Niki: I’m Niki Christoff, and welcome to Tech’ed Up.
On today’s episode, I’m talking with Kai Kloepfer, the CEO of Biofire. His start-up has designed a smart gun that can only be fired by an authorized user. We explore the deep tech it takes to lock a gun using biometrics – like your eyes, palms, or fingerprints.
Biofire’s mission is to prevent kids and teens from finding and firing a handgun. As a gun owner myself, I’m super interested in how this tech can be a better option. And even if you aren’t in that category, it’s worth a listen to understand how smart guns can help keep kids and teens just a little bit safer.
Niki: Today, I'm happy to have, remotely joining us, Kai Kloepfer. Welcome!
Kai: Thanks for having me, Niki.
Niki: So, Kai is a fascinating entrepreneur in tech. Part of why you're fascinating, everyone focuses on your age, but I think there are a number of things that are fascinating! But you are working on building a smart gun that's about to go to market, and what I'd really love to talk about today for our listeners is what that means.
What is a smart gun? What's the problem you're trying to solve? How did you personally end up in this space? So. let's start with what does Biofire do?
Kai: Yeah, so Biofire is a new company, a startup based out here in Colorado, working on building the future of firearms.
And our first product here is, as you said, a smart gun. That's basically a firearm with a built-in biometric lock that ensures that only the owner or someone the owner’s chosen can use it.
Basically, our objective is we want to build a firearm that is accessible for the owner or someone they've chosen when they need it to, right? And functions just like any other handgun in that case but is always locked by default, right?
So that when a kid finds it, when a teenager gets access to it, even if that firearm is taken away from the owner by a criminal or something like that, it will be locked and unusable.
Niki: So, I think this is really interesting, and actually, I probably should have started with this. People in the United States, well globally, have a really visceral reaction to guns and to firearms. And that can be quite extreme on different sides of the cultural and political spectrum, but really, what I hope listeners do today - I don't know where they stand on firearms and gun control [chuckling], but what I really want listeners to learn today is about what the tech does.
And then some of the regulatory and political headwinds you face as a startup founder in a space that's controversial by topic but not really by solution.
So what you just said is the idea of a Biofire smart gun is only the authorized user can use it. Using, and we'll talk about this a little more, but their fingerprints or facial recognition. No one else can use that firearm. If they drop it, it turns off. It's disabled.
And so it's not meant to fix the gun problem in the United States, but just one option that's safer for maybe home protection? Is that what you're focused on as a use case?
Kai: Absolutely. Yeah, this, so this is not going to address most kinds of, I would say, like, violent crime, right?
Mass shootings, other sort of, like, criminals and folks that are deliberately committing, y'know, bad actions. This does not prevent bad actors, right? What it does is help equipped, y'know, well-intentioned gun owners, right?
I, I've talked to thousands of gun owners over the 11 years I've been working on this. And I'm one myself. And, and not once have I ever heard somebody say, “Oh, yes, I, I want my kid to be finding my gun when I'm not home.”
In a lot of ways, this is something that we see as kind of an obvious solution, at least at a theoretical perspective, right? Like, why wouldn't you want a firearm that only works for the owner?
In practice, that's very, very challenging, right? There are a lot of technical hurdles. I'm by no means the first person to have, uh, thought about the concept of a smart gun, right? James Bond has one. Y'know, Judge Dredd has one. It's been in science fiction and fantasy for pretty much forever.
But at the same time, the key thing that nobody before Biofire has ever really gotten right is the reliability piece, right? Building a firearm that is truly always accessible to the owner and is never going to be accessible to their kids. And so, that's where a lot of the challenge comes down.
And so, yeah, to your question, we've chosen to focus very much on home defense. I think this is the use case and the area where, y’know, one, the vast majority of folks that are just starting to get into firearms or maybe buying their first firearm, who, unfortunately, as well-intentioned as they may be, tend to have the highest rate of accidents just because they're less experienced. It's also where kids, teenagers, sort of other vulnerable populations have by far the highest degree of access to a firearm. And so, that's definitely the area we're focused on.
And our first product, that we just launched a few months ago, is very optimized for that home defense use case. In fact, we've from a product design development perspective we've made a whole bunch of decisions that we believe, y'know, through our user research and through our internal kind of analysis, we'll make it a better product for that user, that use case, even if it makes it less effective for other use cases, right?
Niki: Right. And so you talk about reliability, and it's interesting; I think I'm sort of the target audience, right?
I would much rather have a handgun for protection that only I can use, that's completely disabled if a kid, or a stranger, or a visiting teen is in my house than have them find it. And I think one of the realities is people who are very safety conscious, even if you're very safety conscious, for home protection, y’know, you're supposed to keep it locked and your ammunition totally separate, but millions and millions of households, including the one I grew up in, did not do that.
So you've got kids, like, the reality is kids are living in houses where there are loaded firearms every single day. And this makes it clear for the parents, and the owner, and the neighbor that nobody's going to use that gun.
Kai: Yeah. The stat that I've seen most recently is the, some public health researchers have estimated that it's about 5 million children living in households with completely unsecured and loaded firearms. Most people end up with this sort of tension between wanting to do what everybody obviously agrees is a responsible thing, which is, y’know, securing firearms and safes, y’know, oftentimes storing ammunition and a gun in a different safe, right?
Although those safety mechanisms tend to be, I think, less effective against many teenagers than probably a lot of people think they are, but still, like, that's obviously the best practice thing to do. At the same time, in practice, if that's why you're bringing a firearm to your home and potentially taking a greater risk of, y’know, somebody getting access to it. You're not in practice going to be able to get access to that firearm fast enough in an actual emergency.
Niki: Exactly! So let's talk for a minute about your interest in this. So, you actually started working on the SmartGun as a teenager. Your company, Biofire, is based in Colorado, which is also where you grew up.
Tell us a little bit about your backstory and how you ended up starting this company, but where your original interest came from.
Kai: Yeah, so I've been working on SmartGuns in various formats for a little over 11 years now. Started back in 2012 as a high school science fair project, if you believe it or not. I grew up here in Colorado. In the wake of the Aurora theater shooting, really started to think about how could I apply my interest and background as an engineer and technology. Y'know, I was 15 at the time, so I'm not claiming a deep background, but, y'know, it had been the key thing I'd always been interested in.
And I was the kid that got made fun of at summer camp for running around with an electrical engineering textbook, y’know, that-
Niki: [interrupts quickly] Can't spell geek without double-e!
Kai: Exactly. Yep. That's, that's that's a great joke. [deadpan]
Niki: Thank you! I don't think anyone else thinks that! [chuckling] I'm glad you think so!
Kai: Well, I I thought it was, it was. I was more like, impressed that you were able to pull that one off!
Niki: [still chuckling] Oh, that's me! Here to impress!
Aurora was something that really, I was old enough at the time, I think, really to see the impact it had on my friends, on, on my community, on sort of just the, like, Colorado and national environment. And sort of thinking about, “Hey, like, y'know, is there a way we could start to address, y'know, like, mass shootings and other issues like this?”
And very quickly, as I started to dig in, realized something that was very surprising to me at the time, and I think is still to this day, is surprising to a lot of Americans when I talk to them, which is two-thirds of all gun deaths in America are the result of suicides and accidents.
Firearm accidents are one of the leading causes of death for children in America. And so, that seemed like kind of an obvious problem, right? And one that was, was well suited to engineering, technical, sort of physical solution, right?
So, long story short, I won't go through the whole, the whole history, but worked on the science fair project for a while end up getting a first place in engineering at the international science fair that year, which was great. Turned into a research project backed by some folks at a Silicon Valley, spent a couple of years at MIT working on a double major in ECS and Management before dropping out, taking a Thiel fellowship- that program where Peter Thiel pays you $100, 000 to drop out of college. It's a good deal! And founding Biofire full-time in 2018. And so, and then we've been hard at work ever since, working through iterating prototyping, and then in the last couple of years, building our first production product here.
Niki: So, let's talk about the actual tech. I know you guys; I actually met you a couple of years ago, and I know that you have a team of, kind of, aerospace engineer types because the technology itself is really, really complicated to get biometrics to work.
What, what are the challenges with developing the technology that you've had to work on since 2018?
Kai: Yeah, the biggest challenge is our product has to be substantially more complex from a technical perspective than a traditional firearm to deliver the, y’know, the feature set. We've got fingerprints, we've got 3D facial recognition, we've got all sorts of sensors, and processing, and software, and algorithms and, y'know, all sorts of other things like that built into the firearm, which are required to, y'know, deliver a really seamless experience.
And one of the big things that's been a challenge that we spent a lot of time working on is we we want to have this really sophisticated, complex product, y'know, that that truly addresses the pain point for the customer, right? Truly actually does what it says which is just you pick it up and it works.
If y'know how to use a traditional handgun, or if you want to go to a training class to learn how to use a traditional handgun, our product is, is just applicable. There's no extra steps. There's no buttons to push. There's nothing else, y'know, that's been really added to the experience beyond a few little lights. Under the hood, though, very, very different.
And so, the big challenge is guns, handguns in particular, which is what we're focused on. We're not building rifles or shotguns or anything like that, but handguns are, are pretty straightforward at the end of the day.
And that doesn't mean that they're necessarily trivial but y'know, a Glock has 90 components in it, and that's if you cloud every single little spring. It's not, it's not that complicated of a system versus, y'know, ours has 1200. [Niki: mm-hmm]
And when you increase the complexity of a system, you also need to be more sophisticated and how you handle that complexity, right? How you test the product, how you understand potential failure modes, how you understand potential risks and how you design against those.
I started the company technically in Boston right after dropping out of MIT and made the deliberate decision to move back here to Colorado for reasons sort of independent of growing up here. It's great to be home, but the main reason we moved back is there was a really good concentration of, as you said, aerospace and satellite engineering talent here in the Colorado Front Range area.
And, in a lot of ways, the process and the work to build a satellite - this device that's highly complicated, has a lot of different electronics and software and mechanical parts all going into it that you're then going to launch into space and just hope it works. And if it doesn't, very, very, very expensive, is, is in a lot of ways, very, very similar to what we're doing, right? Where you need a high reliability, we call it “safety critical” in the engineering world and something that's just going to work every time.
And so, it's been, it's been quite a process, I think very, very proud of the, the product and the technology that we've, we've built so far. And, y’know, given that we've raised about 30 million dollars of venture capital to do that, y’know, we better be! But, at the same time, I think it is, is really the first true smart gun, and certainly the one that's, y’know, it's going to be, by far, the first to be commercially available.
Niki: So, I want to talk about venture capital funding, which I think is sort of interesting. You're in this, again, when you're talking about guns, people will have a visceral reaction, including some VCs, may not want to fund the development of any kind of weapons. People feel like, “There's already too many guns. Why put more guns out there?” versus thinking, “People are going to buy guns anyway. It'd be great if they had an option that's safer. For preventing suicides, accidents, if it's stolen out of someone's car.” Which, I was just reading in the New York Times, that's, like, through the roof, people stealing guns out of cars.
Kai: [interrupts quickly] The Secret Service, I think, estimates that 76% of firearms recovered at crime scenes are stolen from vehicles.
Niki: Wow! Okay. So, you just said 76% of firearms at crime scenes are stolen out of vehicles?!
Kai: Yeah, it might be 80, but it's the number somewhere around -
Niki: [interrupts] Really high! And so, you're seeing this all over.
People are stealing them out of, y'know, consoles and glove compartments. But again, you sort of, disincentivize that if the criminal can't use it, if only the owner can use it. So, it solves what I think is kind of a trending issue there, too.
But you are in this politically difficult space because gun rights enthusiasts and activists don't want to be mandated to have to buy these guns. And one issue that could arise and has arisen that it would be great for you to address is: One, you have venture capitalists who may not want to fund any kind of weapon systems at all, right? Any kind of guns. And then, you also have gun enthusiasts saying, “Well, we don't want to; if these get developed, we may be mandated that this is what we have to buy, that all of them have to be this.”
And really neither of those things to me make a lot of fundamental sense if you're just looking at a narrow problem that you're solving with technology, but how is that affecting you as a business person?
Kai: Yeah, so I think navigating the political and regulatory environment is certainly one of the, the kind of key things that we do here at Biofire.
I, I would say it would be naive to say that we, we don't operate in a highly politicized environment, right? We absolutely do. And, and no matter what we do, no matter what we want to have to be true, the gun issue is just a major issue and it's going to stay that way.
Biofire has customers that are approaching this from all different perspectives, have all different political positions.
And, y'know, one of the key, sort of, stances that we've taken is very much being focused on issues that are directly related to our product and to be our ability to serve our customers as opposed to engaging more broadly on a lot of issues. And as an example, you mentioned mandates, right? I think That's a really good topic because we have actually taken a very strong stance against mandates for our technology.
In fact, the lobbying that we've done, y'know, in DC, as well as at the state level, has all been actually centered around pushing back against mandates. And trying to educate regulators on, y'know, why mandates for this technology are actually not going to really serve anybody's interests. I think the fundamental piece here is we see this as it has to be a choice for consumers. Like, we think this is the best firearm you can buy for home defense. We think it is something that a lot of gun owners want to adopt and, and our research and our, our polls, y’know, reflect that. But at the same time, it has to be something that people choose, right? Because this is one, not a solution for all kinds of, of gun death. It's also not a solution for all kinds of gun use case.
There's a whole bunch of reasons why people legitimately and legally buy guns that this product is sort of a terrible product for. That's very deliberate, right? We want to build a really good product for one use case. And having this be a choice, I think is the only way this works. And that's something that we've engaged very strongly in New Jersey at the federal level and otherwise, is, is to continue to make this a choice.
I think on the, on the venture capital side, certainly for Biofire, y’know, the pool of investors that are even legally able, I would say, to participate in this space is certainly smaller. A lot of venture funds have some of their largest LPs, the folks that have invested in that fund for the manager to be able to deploy that capital. Some of the largest LPs are endowments, the Stanford Endowment, y'know, the MIT Endowment, things like that. And, almost...almost 100% of the time, those endowments prohibit investments in vice, which is sort of this broad category of weapons, pornography, drugs, things like that.
Niki: Ugh! Oh, we'll have to do a whole other episode on what constitutes vice since a lot of these are investing [chuckling] in plenty of tech products I would consider vice, but okay!
Kai: Yes. Yeah. I, I, I'm using the industry terminology [Niki: laughs], not my personal opinions on that terminology, which I think is, is very silly. But anyway, there's a lot of, there's a lot of firms that just have contractual restrictions of being able to participate in any sort of space like this. At the same time, y'know, I think we found a really good group of investors, right?
Our lead investor from our most recent fundraising round, which was Founders Fund, that deal that they led was, to my knowledge, the first-ever VC-led fundraising round into a firearms company ever. Y’know, Founders Fund is, is a major investor, if maybe not the investor in Anduril, Palantir, right, and many other companies that are, are certainly touching, if not just outright, y'know, working in defense applications. And that's great, right?
Like, I think there's a big need for applying American innovation and ingenuity to all sorts of areas. Any area where it's useful and whether that's defense, whether that's firearms, right? I think that funds like Founders Fund, in particular, who take a very broad sort of non-sector-based view, tend to be very interested in this just because it's good business.
I've certainly had a lot of conversations with folks that are just, y’know, not going to be investors in the company but at the same time, I would actually say probably 70, 80% of individuals, even if maybe like their fund can't invest, tend to be very, very interested and supportive on the investment side of what we're doing.
Niki: I think that's good to know because I, I also wonder if some of the investment headwinds, I'm not saying for you specifically, but this is true for anyone with a really complicated project. You mentioned satellites. It's so high intensity with R&D because you have to get it right. So it's years and years. It's not just an app you can launch in beta. It's hardware combined with software combined with, y’know, you're testing for, I think I heard you saying this on, on another show, wet hands or, maybe someone's wearing gloves, which is why you would have facial recognition to duplicate the fingerprints.
So, it's very, very complicated to get that engineering right. And it has to absolutely work. So, it's going to just be a longer time horizon until you're ready, which you are now, which I find really timely, but you, until you're absolutely ready to start selling these.
Kai: Absolutely. And I actually think that, that dynamic has been by far the more challenging or impactful portion of fundraising as compared to the firearms piece. Hardware and especially what I would try to categorize is, like, deep tech hardware, is the, is the buzzword we like to use, which has that sort of dynamic of requiring a lot of upfront investment for generally a long period of time before there's a product available.
And it doesn't have it doesn't fit a lot of the sort of traditional mosaic of, like, MVPs and beta products and be able to get things out really quickly and iterate in the wild. We've done a lot of work internally to try to replicate, I would say, similar structures because I think they create a lot of value and being able to, to, y'know, for example, stress test, whether or not your product is going to be a good fit for your customer as early as possible is, is, is really good.
We've raised a lot of capital to get there. And I think our objective is to push towards building a, y'know, sustainable, enduring business, y'know, as quickly as possible.
Niki: Yep. And you have an advisory board that helps you think through these complicated dynamics of what people really want it to use and how it needs to work in unusual situations, right?
Kai: Yeah, we have, we have multiple, actually, we have two different advisory boards. We have a sort of a general advisory board of folks that are, just really sort of, experienced in a lot of different areas. And then we have our, kind of, like, expert advisory board, which is mostly comprised of special forces operators, law enforcement instructors, folks that have had a lot of really deep experience and training around firearms.
In many cases, those are not our customers, right? Like, those are, are not the people that we're trying to build the product for. We're trying to build product more for kind of your average homeowner, but at the same time, they know a lot more about firearms.
And so, one of the key things for us has been, y'know, we want to ensure that we're both building a very high-quality firearm as well as ensuring that we are building a really high-quality smart gun. And, even if our customers may not notice every different nuance of, y'know, the quality of the firearm itself, I think it's really important that we're, y’know, being responsible in terms of actually building something that is, is just as good as any other firearm that they can buy.
Niki: Yep. So, just to back up and kind of recap where we are: you've been working on thinking about smart guns since a science fair in high school where you weren't presumably, I think you were using a, was it a 3D printed gun? Because you couldn't really have a gun at a science fair?
Kai: Yes. I was also 15.
Niki: [chuckle] And you were 15! Correct.
Kai: When I was working in the science fair, it was like a 3D printed sort of mock-up of a gun.
Niki: It wasn't even really a gun. So, at 15, you're from right outside Aurora, Colorado. You started thinking about this, how you can deal with one part of the public- enormous public health and public safety issues of guns in the United States. You go to MIT. Peter Thiel pays you a bunch of money to drop out. You start building this company. You've been working on it for years of hard, hard engineering talent, getting it to work. And it is now available. People can go, they can buy, pre-order a gun that will be available sometime next year.
I was actually on the website this morning. You can pick, like, different color combinations and add-ons. It's a higher price point ‘cause you're basically, people are helping to subsidize this tech investment.
Kai: It's also like the entire guts of a smartphone plus the entire cost of building a firearm. So, it's just fundamentally more expensive.
Niki: It's just fundamentally more expensive, but it's safer. It's safer for anybody who's going to be having a handgun in their in their home.
Kai: Yeah, and we've, we've gotten thousands of pre-orders, y'know, since we've launched. We actually have sold out of the first couple manufacturing batches already, so I would say, it doesn't appear that the price point is having too much impact on demand.
Niki: And are you seeing any trends in who is pre-ordering a smart gun?
Kai: Yeah, I think what's really interesting actually is if you look at the demographics of people that own, y'know, one or two handguns in their home for, for self-defense, the demographic profile of that just looks like America, right? There's in fact, not really any perceptible demographic skew, unlike the gun enthusiasts market, which skews in a obvious direction.
The folks that are just buying a firearm as a tool really tend to just look like Americans, right? And I think that's been something that we've been really interested to see in our initial orders. Just, y’know, looking at like basic high level information is we've seen a very similar dynamic.
Like, California is our largest state, y’know, Texas and Florida are second and third, and from like a population-adjusted perspective we, we see concentrations in all the major, y'know, urban centers of the country and reasonably population-adjusted numbers. We also see like a good spread throughout the more rural parts of America and everything in between. And that's exactly what we're looking for is we want to build a company, and a brand, and most importantly, a product that really addresses the true need.
And I think that is in a lot of ways, evidence of that.
Niki: So you'll find out more as you, as you continue and get more market research, you'll find out more about who wants them. But I think it's fascinating that it just maps to the general demographics of the country.
Kai: It's a very normal e-commerce experience. You configure your product, you create an account, all that kind of stuff. Right now, we're asking for that $150 refundable deposit. You can always refund that. You just lose your spot in line. And then, as we get closer to, basically, your manufacturing date, we ask you to, basically, like, put the rest of the payment down.
And then we ship that firearm out to a gun store, or sort of other licensed location that's licensed by the ATF, near you. And then you go in, that gun store performs your background check. It's called a 4473, but basically performs your background check, any other permit verifications, and regulatory sort of compliance verifications that vary on a state-by-state, and even city-by-city, basis in certain cases. And then, y'know, you take delivery of that firearm.
After that, your experience and your relationship is pretty much directly with Biofire. So if you need service, you need a warranty, you need support, you need replacement parts, or you want the latest and greatest upgrade or accessory, y’know, that's all directly with Biofire.
Niki: Well, I appreciate how much care you've put into thinking through both the purchasing process and the design of the firearm and the, and the narrow but incredibly important solution to a problem, which is suicides, accidents, kids getting close to guns. It's a really smart solution to a challenge that does have a technical fix, hopefully. And this can make a dent in that.
I also know that you are laser-focused [chuckling] on getting your manufacturing done. So, I really appreciate you taking the time to come and talk about this. Most of our listeners are really focused on these regulatory challenges around emerging and new tech.
And like you said, James Bond had a smart gun, but nobody has actually made one that anybody can buy, that actually works reliably, and you have done it!
So, I'm incredibly impressed. Thank you so much for coming on!
Kai: Likewise. Thanks for having me, Niki.
Niki: On the next episode of Tech’ed Up, we’re starting a whole new thing. We’ll be shining a spotlight on interesting people in tech, starting with Reddit’s Jessica Ashooh. She joins the show from the Bay Area to talk about her path from Oxford to Abu Dhabi to Silicon Valley.
And for our cat-lover listeners, I’ll be recommending some subreddits you can’t live without. You’re welcome in advance!