Teenagers in America shouldn’t have to think about what happens if a young child gets ahold of his or her father’s pistol, or a criminal disarms a police officer, or someone opens fire inside a movie theater. Teenagers in America are supposed to be worried about dating, or music, or their grades, or navigating the already difficult task that is simply being an adolescent. But the harsh reality is that gun violence is all around us. Every single day. And in the wake of recent shootings, gun sales are spiking all over the country, with more people getting background checks to purchase firearms on this year’s Black Friday than on any other single day on record, according to a recent New York Times article.
But one teenager in America is doing his part to make his home a safer place.
As a high schooler in Colorado, Kai Kloepfer started developing a fingerprint sensor that could be placed on the grip of a firearm. The sensor would recognize the owner of the gun, providing a more advanced measure of safety in that a gun could then only be fired by the individual that it belongs to. Kloepfer might just hold the key to saving a lot of lives, and that key came out of an idea he had as a high school sophomore in an advanced science research seminar.
His proposed smart firearm wasn’t just a pipe dream; it was enough to earn him a $50,000 grant to work toward his project. And Kloepfer was the subject of the second episode of Uproxx’s Luminaries series back in April. The video took off on social media and elsewhere, and millions of plays later, Kloepfer found himself as a bit of a local celebrity in his hometown.
Kai has made designing and testing a smarter (and safer) firearm his passion, and in between being accepted into MIT and searching for a research partner, he opened a crowdfunding campaign to help further his work and give others the chance to connect with his project through donations.
Uproxx took a few minutes to catch up with Kloepfer and discuss what he’s learned along the way, how the Luminaries episode affected his life, just how far along his technology is in the development process, and more.
Martin Rickman: It’s been awhile since the Luminaries series aired. Catch us up on your progress and how things have been going with you.
Kai Kloepfer: I’ve been spending most of the time since that video looking for an engineering partner. I’ve been talking to a number of different companies, over 20 different companies, who all could possibly serve to help develop my technology into the next stage of a working prototype. I’ve been spending a lot of time not only looking for those partners but working on a way to fund the development of that prototype. I’m launching a crowdfunding campaign, and am trying to get as much attention around that too, to raise awareness of the social issue and try to raise some money to bring the product to the next stage.
What was the response to the video from people you’ve spoken with? Were you surprised in any way to how people responded to it?
It was insane. You know 20 million views is a big number, but it’s just a number. It doesn’t take into account the sort of response I got from it. I went to the grocery store one day, and the guy working behind the counter was like, “Wait, are you that guy who is making that fingerprint gun?” Somebody I’ve never talked to or seen before in my entire life. That was a strange sort of thing. The number of people who have reached out to help me, or the number of people who have told me they’re rooting for me, it’s been incredible.
Whenever I speak with anyone in the startup sector, they always talk about those pivot points. Those moments where you can make a small change, but that incremental change is huge – whether it’s a product or an idea. Have you had any of those since the video came out?
Now that you’ve laid it out like that, I think so. It almost started with the Luminaries video and especially afterward. I’ve worked on this project for years now, and I guess I started looking at it as a really big problem that needs to be solved. I had the potential to save lives. Somewhere along the line, I said that so many times and looked at the numbers so many times, that it wasn’t any less true, but it was desensitized. It was sort of like, well, of course, a child is injured by a firearm every 30 minutes in the United States. I’ve said that statistic so many times it’s just obvious. I was still developing the technology, but I lost touch with the reason why I was actually doing it.
With the video, I had the opportunity to talk to the daughter of the teacher at the Columbine shooting, and that was really … moving. I have been fortunate to not be directly affected by firearm violence in my life so far, but talking to somebody who really had her life changed by firearm violence and that this technology could possibly prevent, this was the start. I started to realize after that through talking to people that I need to really establish a vision; or this reason for doing what I’m doing.
Also, previously I told myself I was never going to try crowdfunding because I thought that was never going to work. I always sort of operated on the statistics level, but most people don’t operate very well on statistics. They’re useful, but it doesn’t motivate people to do anything most of the time. Realizing that emotional connection and the literally thousands of people who reached out to me after the video, saying, “Well where can I donate? I’d love to support your efforts.” Wow, I can raise money to do some more work. Before I had this grant money, but there wasn’t an easy next step. I could go with investors, but that’s a whole other can of worms. It really opened up an opportunity.
Having those people on board, there’s that emotional connection, and it’s allowing them to feel like they’re contributing and helping to find a solution. Sometimes crowdfunding works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but people being able to do something with the connection they’ve made to you, or to a product, whether it’s giving $20 or more, they can feel like they’re doing something, and they’re helping.
They are helping. Without that support, I won’t be able to develop to the next step.
Where did the grant money go? When we last left you in the video, you had just received it, and the next step was what you were doing from there.
I have a pretty substantial amount of the grant left. That’s where I’m starting research and development. That’s what’s going toward a working prototype. This way I can actually pick up a firearm and test it, and show investors the potential technology. Three-fifths of the grant money is going to that directly, and that’s what I have left. The other $20,000 I used to develop my electrical system and to work on developing my mechanical system. I purchased a 3D printer and used it to produce versions of my mechanical plan. I had various versions of a circuit board, but each version costs a couple thousand dollars, just to produce a couple boards for me to test. That’s where that money went.
I know you’ve been working on this problem for awhile, but what inspired you to get into this space, and what’s your relationship with science and engineering? Everyone comes at these things from different angles, and after watching the video I was wondering what inspired you and what fueled you. Everyone’s origin story is different.
I always like to say that different families emphasize different things. One family I know has five kids, and every single one of those kids is a varsity athlete of some sort, and they’re all really good. Their parents are triathletes. That’s what their family emphasizes, physical strength and endurance and going out there and playing sports. My family’s version of that was always academics. Both my parents are lawyers, and they spent years upon years in school. My mom is also a geologist. There’s always been a background of science and intellectual pursuits in my family. Thinking, and the art of thinking. Asking questions from a very young age.
I’m sure I annoyed the stink out of the adults around me. Whenever something happened, I’d ask “Why did that happen?” or “How does that work?” I’d beg my parents for broken pieces of VCRs and stuff, and take them apart, and try and figure out what each piece did. That was kind of where it started. That progressed throughout elementary school and middle school. I built robots and designed circuit boards and spent a lot of my time focusing on computers and engineering and electronics and science in general.
Once I got to high school, I had the really unique opportunity of being in one of the best public high schools in Colorado [Boulder High School], if not the whole country. I was exposed to PhD scientists in their fields. My physics teacher and biology teachers both have PhDs. All of my teachers all really, really loved what they did. They spent their entire lives doing it, and they managed to communicate that. They were such good teachers that they got me super interested in the science classes. Not only was I already interested, but they were so psyched about it themselves, that it just kind of turned over.
My passion for all of those subjects increased, and it all culminated sophomore year when I enrolled in my science research seminar. It was basically a class teaching you the process of scientific research. Writing proposals and creating at a high level. Every single person in that class was expected to write and do research that would be the same as at a global institution or the University of Colorado. This project, the smart firearm, came out of a project for that class.
Do you have a college picked out at this point?
I’m going to MIT. I finished school last year, and I’m on a gap year right now developing my technology. Full time. I was accepted to MIT and deferred my acceptance, and I’ll be going next year. I’m really excited.
You see the video, and the New York Times article, and all the attention. Was that strange having to adapt to that? Was there anything you had to do differently? You’re worried about doing your project and making a difference, but having to add in the extra media attention, that’s not easy for anyone, much less someone trying to juggle school and research.
There were times where I was getting phone calls in the middle of class, and I’d be wondering, “why are people calling me?” But I’ve always been the type of person who loved going out and talking to people, and talking about my work and sharing that with people. That combined with the fact that from early, early on I had to talk about this project. It’s kind of like a science fair project. You have to stand up there and talk to the judges or you can never go anywhere. I really love sharing my enthusiasm for it, and this project and sharing the potential solution it has for gun violence in our country.
Fortunately, it was kind of gradual. It didn’t start with the New York Times and Uproxx. It was local radio and local TV, and now we’re doing national radio, and now we’re doing national TV, and oh, hey there are Emmy-winning directors in my house. It’s so much fun because I really like talking to people, and I’ve learned a lot filming things like the Luminaries series.
The one moment in the video where you can kind of see a turn is this tech has been “previously shunned” by gun owners or by the military, but there’s that friction there where people want to say now, “but there’s still opportunity.” Have you taken the challenge of trying to win those people over and flipped it into an opportunity? Trying to bridge that gap and maintain the overall vision and mission you have.
One, I know that if I do this right, and it’s always possible to make mistakes in engineering and not develop it properly, but assuming I create this project correctly, there’s literally no downside. It has the potential to save a lot of lives while not making it harder for individuals to use their firearm. I wholeheartedly believe that. It’s a solution that’s no compromise. It doesn’t affect how people use their firearms at all except for the one percent of cases that everyone’s trying to prevent.
Talking to the military, like the veteran I talked to in the Luminaries series, for example, they have very valid concerns. I generally don’t talk to people on either side of the issue. Strong gun control activists, or strong second amendment individuals. I sort of avoid those because you can’t have an intelligent conversation. I’m not learning anything from it. But people who can state their ideas and the reasons for them, even if they are completely different from mine, that’s completely fine because I can learn something from it.
A lot of the changes and improvements I’ve made are because I talked to people who disagreed with me. I can fix that, and that’s always been an underlying sort of ideal for me.
Are you worrying at all about hacking or the fingerprint technology not working to a certain degree?
It’s relatively easy to prevent hacking because people need physical access to the firearm, and they can’t get the fingerprints off with the encryption we have built in. That’s not that hard to do. The technology is the single greatest thing I’m working with, and that’s why I’m working with engineering partners and going out to fundraise. This has to be done properly. Because if it’s not, it could potentially kill the market for the next 20 or 30 years.
I had to do it right, and doing it right involves developing technology and testing that technology, as many situations as you can think of and afford. If one of those tests fails, you go and figure out how to fix it.
I’m a firm believer of the concept that everything is possible. Some things are very, very hard, to the point that they’re basically impossible. But they’re not impossible. They’re just really hard now. In 20 years, they’ll be easy. It’s definitely a challenge. I’m not going to stand here and say it’s not a problem. It’s hard. But I think it’s something I can address. I can look at and say, why didn’t the fingerprint scanner work? How are we going to fix it?
Looking for that tiny last bit of innovation, have you found any inspiration in any unlikely source?
There have been so many conversations, and so many things, it seems like every day I add something new to the list or add something new to the way I search for engineering partners or look for referrals. There’s a whole bunch of them, and they’re all blending together to make what it is.
It’s a revelation every day where this journey is happening organically for you, so to speak.
I’m learning and figuring it all out along the way. And that’s what’s exciting for me.