Preventing Gun Violence: In-Depth Series

This special series of interviews explores the issue of gun violence in the United States, and highlights some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and cross-sector initiatives tackling the problem.

Last year, serial entrepreneur Jim Pitkow joined forces with venture capitalist Ron Conway and other Silicon Valley investors to form the Smart Tech Foundation.  The goal of the foundation is to understand what role technology and innovators can play to help move gun violence prevention forward. As part of those efforts and its work with Sandy Hook Promise, the foundation recently launched the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge, a $1 million prize to entice entrepreneurs to focus on safer and smarter firearms.

Rachael Chong & Melissa Fleming: Tell us about the Smart Tech for Firearms Challenge.

Jim Pitkow: We came up with four areas where we could play a role: firearms; big data; public and community safety; and brain and mental health. We looked at what platforms were available. It was clear that there were endemic market failures in both innovation and active capital. In March 2013, we launched the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative, an investment effort that now has 40-plus angel investors committed to reviewing and funding companies that look promising in those areas.

Jim Pitkow.

The Smart Tech Foundation was inspired by the Innovation Initiative. We have folks from both conservative and progressive sides of the issue, unified around the notion that we need to do something more than funding lobbying groups and trying to influence legislation. Our position is: Let’s create market options such that consumers who want smarter and safer guns can actually buy the products, and then let’s look at these other focus areas and see what innovation can bring to bear on reducing gun violence. To this end, we decided to introduce incentive challenges similar to that of the XPRIZE.

What do you hope will come of the challenge?

We hope to foster the exploration of as many potential technical paths as possible. There are currently five or six technical approaches. One is called dynamic grip recognition technology, which identifies the user by his unique squeeze of the gun handle. Another is biometrics and thumbprint identification much like you find on an iPhone. Another is a low frequency radio—when you wear a ring or a watch, the proximity of that item authorizes the gun. Other approaches are making the ammunition itself smarter.

Part of the benefit of focusing on challenges and innovation at this stage is that we don’t know what creative ideas that innovators and entrepreneurs will come up with. What we’re here to do is provide that structure, focus and access to experts, and tools so that people are sufficiently resourced, and inspired and incentivized to innovate.

Is the goal to encourage new or current entrepreneurs?

The philosophy is to foster innovation across three segments. One is for existing companies that have solutions that would benefit from additional capital and exposure. The second is from folks who have ideas, but haven’t been able to prototype or build around them. The third is from folks who may not have even thought about this issue, but are now focused on it with this structure to test ideas out and submit new and novel approaches.

What has the response been?

One of the things that has resonated really well across interest groups is our positioning, which is the role that innovation and free markets can provide, and trust in the democratic process. Folks on both sides of the issue view innovation as a potential path to reducing gun violence. There are issues and concerns around the technology itself. Whatever is developed needs to be as reliable as the existing technology; the manufacturers need to have protections against liability and lawsuits around introducing the new technology; and then there are also concerns around mandate.

Can you tell us more about each of the focus areas?

One great example for how big data applies to reducing gun violence is PredPol, a company that takes real-time social media analysis—tweets, Facebook posts, reports from officers—and runs predictive analysis. It figures out where law enforcement resources need to be at any particular point in time. The traditional model is having feet on the street for a particular precinct. This takes it to the next level by telling them in real time where they need to be based on where the crime itself is occurring. Trials in Chicago and LA have shown that with the same number of resources and by accurately positioning those resources, there is up to a 40 percent reduction in crime.

We use the term brain health in addition to mental health as we realize the ever-increasing interconnection between neuro-chemistry and the behaviors and actions that people take. Developing new technologies that can understand, and provide resources and assessments of one’s mental health is an area we’d love to explore. Mental health is a challenging issue because the people affected by it may not know they have that condition. Furthermore, their supporting community may not be able to recognize when somebody switches from being healthy to unhealthy, or from being unhealthy to being at risk to themselves or the public.

The fourth area is community, public, and school safety. In looking at the pattern of some of these incidents, especially the ones that involve K-12 educational environments, the shooters will often go into the central office where the PA system resides, remove the ability of the school to enable its emergency response system, and then regretfully move from classroom to classroom. Colleges don’t have centralized systems, so the Virginia Tech massacre didn’t have an emergency response system.

Voxer has a push-to-talk technology—think of it as a walkie talkie that exists on any smartphone—that could be applied so that authorized personnel could let everybody know through their smartphones that there’s an incident. That moves it from a centralized or nonexistent system to one that is decentralized, and increases the robustness and durability of the school’s emergency response capability.

Can you tell us more about the structure you chose for Smart Tech?

We chose a foundation structure in recognition of the functional role we will be playing in the ecosystem. We will be issuing grants to innovators and awarding prizes to the winners. We are currently structured to handle only the four challenges. We have a termination point. We thought the foundation structure worked best given the nature of what we’re trying to do and how we will conduct that. Our aspiration is to launch $1 million for each of the four challenges, every six to nine months.

Is the foundation concerned about the longevity of the entrepreneurs working on this?

We are very concerned about the entire ecosystem and assuring that the ecosystem is sufficiently funded across all stages of development. Our focus is on the initial phase of innovation. The next phase after that is company formation, when the capital phase takes over depending on whether it’s a for-profit or nonprofit. Part of what we are able to do is raise awareness around capital needs and the process that produces the most viable solutions. It creates a nice handoff for the next phase, where there are existing solutions.

The final post in this series will highlight the efforts of the Joyce Foundation towards changing policy issues impacting access to firearms and the prevention of gun violence.