From Start To Startup: 30 Under 30 Kai Kloepfer's Biofire Technologies
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
Frederick Daso | Forbes | October 31, 2017
According to PBS, a child dies every other day due to firearms.
Every year, there are over 33,000 deaths due to firearms. Over two thirds of the deaths can be attributed to suicide. When Kai Kloepfer, 20, was initially researching these statistics, he was surprised that suicides made up a majority of the deaths but received little news coverage compared to deaths from mass shootings.
Kloepfer is originally from Boulder, Colorado, a city known for its liberal tendencies. Yet, underneath the left-leaning politics, there is a sizeable, yet discreet gun ownership culture, not just in the city, but throughout the state.
He had been recently looking for a science fair project to complete during his sophomore year. Around that time, the Aurora theater shooting occurred. Aurora was only forty-five minutes from home for Kloepfer. The fear and dangers of guns hit close to home. That’s when he thought, is there a way to use technology to solve the problem of gun violence?
“I’ve always seen myself as an engineer,” says Kloepfer. It was natural for him to believe technology was the solution to remedying societal problems. He liked to pursue a lot of electrical engineering projects when he was growing up. In middle-school, he built a robot with custom PCB boards for his school science fair.
Kloepfer working on the next iteration of the smart gun prototype.
In light of this tragedy, Kloepfer decided his efforts were best put to designing technology that could improve gun safety. He dedicated himself to developing smart gun technology for the next ten months. Classes weren’t a priority (he still made sure to pass them), but this project was. Kloepfer went through 150 prototype revisions in his journey to building a working biometric scanner on a firearm that would only fire if the wielder’s fingerprint matched the gun owner’s. On that journey, he presented some of those iterations at regional, state, and international science fairs.
He won them all, capping off his appearance at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) with a 1st place award. But not without great cost.
“I was burnout by the end of my sophomore year,” he said. Kloepfer had reached the end of his work with the smart gun technology he developed. He lacked the drive, and more importantly, the funds to keep going. The worn-out engineer estimated that he would need $50,000 to create a functioning prototype of his fingerprint sensor and integrate that into an actual gun. “There would be no way to continue building the gun without external funding.”
Without that money, the science project would just stay a science project. Kloepfer turned his attention back towards school, taking harder classes en route to achieving his International Baccalaureate Diploma. Intel also happened to work with him in creating a video for promoting ISEF. One of the organizers of that video suggested that Kloepfer apply to the newly-created Smart Tech Challenge hosted by the Smart Tech Foundation. Kloepfer quickly wrote up his application and submitted it a couple days later.
It wasn’t till the summer after his junior year that he got an email from Smart Tech Foundation regarding his application.
He had won a $50,000 dollar grant to support him in his work. The science project become a research project now throughout his remaining time in high school. Kloepfer also took a gap year before his freshman year at MIT to continue working on his smart-gun technology. It was only right before he entered MIT as a freshman that his research project became a full-fledged startup. Biofire Technologies was born after years of tedious progress towards preventing suicides due to firearm usage in the United States.
One of the first prototypes with Kloepfer's fingerprint sensor integrated into an actual gun.
Kloepfer has found a challenge in being a full-time MIT student as well as a full-time entrepreneur. Building his startup consumes his time outside of his classes. He says “everyone is working a 100 hours a week, and I just choose to use those hours not doing clubs and activities, but working on Biofire.”
Although Biofire is a small team right now, he’s learning how to build it bigger. He’s on track to hiring a few others to help him in his question to reduce suicide due to firearms. As an entrepreneur, he’s finding the questions surrounding building his startup challenging to answer immediately. Where will the team be based? How does he structure the roles and responsibilities of each team member? Where will capital come from?
Those questions build on top of the ultimate one he’s trying to answer: can technology be used to prevent unintentional use of firearms?
Kloepfer believes so. And the many families who will have safe ownership of their firearms augmented by Biofire’s advanced fingerprint sensor will believe so too.