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Two years ago, Omer Kiyani risked his financial future to put his version of a good gun lock on the market.
He’d nurtured his invention, a biometric lock called the Identilock, for four years. He’d won, amazingly, a $100,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, and found angel investors and an American manufacturer.
And, he’d finally made his first big sale. The big outdoor chain, Cabela’s, was waiting for the biometric locks. They fit over the trigger of different handguns, detaching automatically when a gun’s owner picks up a gun.
Now, as he looked at the first products, he had a sinking feeling. They weren’t good enough. “They needed tweaks,” he remembered.
He had to decide: Should he go ahead with the flawed product or risk losing the order?
He went the high road, and Cabela’s canceled. He was out of money, but he went back to the manufacturer and insisted that it fill the original order up to specs.
“If Cabela wants to buy it … others will, too,” he told himself. “It took another year to produce the product properly.”
In the third quarter of 2017, he launched, selling online only.
These days, his decision looks like a smart move: In a possible sign that the market for biometric gun technology is slowly evolving, Sentinl has sold more than 4,000 Identilocks in its first year. With the locks selling for more than $200 each, the company brought in between $800,000 and $1 million in revenue in 2018, according to Kiyani. The locks are designed to detach within .3 seconds (I haven’t tested them).
Some big manufacturers have already reached out to inquire if the company is for sale, Kiyani said. He hasn’t decided whether to say yes or no; he’s also looking for funding to expand the company himself. His main interest, at this point, he says, is bringing more of the product to market to save lives.
Why Biometric Technology Is Important
Any technology that makes it harder for someone who is not a gun’s owner to use a particular gun likely saves lives. There are about 20,000 deaths and injuries from unintentional shootings and young people’s suicides every year, and about 250,000 guns are stolen every year, according to Bureau of Justice statistics cited by the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation.
Though there are many gun locks on the market, biometric technology is seen as particularly secure and effective in a pressure-filled situation, because it works via fingerprints.
Kiyani was motivated to work on his invention in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting. The killer in that case used his mother’s Bushmaster rifle.
Kiyani, a gun owner himself, designed the lock so that it wouldn’t run into the gun industry’s main objections to biometric technology. When I talked to the general counsel of Beretta and a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, they told me one of the issues is whether integrated biometric technology would interfere with a weapon’s functionality.
This was a question that Kyani was equipped to handle.
An immigrant from Pakistan, Kiyani graduated from Purdue University. He worked first at a nuclear power company, and then got a job at giant manufacturer Bosch. Kiyani worked on airbag technology for a decade, loving his work.
When Sandy Hook happened, he started thinking harder about how to solve a problem he’d run into himself: how to safely store guns with his own three children at home. Guns were something he believed in having in the home, as protection for his family. But he recognized the risk they posed.
As an aside, an alarmingly large number of parents don’t: The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation reported:
A Harvard survey of children in gun-owning households found that more than 70% of children under age 10 knew where their parents stored their guns — even when they were hidden — and 36% of the children reported handling the weapons. Some 39% of parents who thought their child was unaware of the location of the household’s gun were contradicted by their children, and one of every five parents who believed their child had not handled the gun was mistaken.”
It didn’t make sense to Kiyani that a safer gun was so hard. Yes, he’d need to make a lock that would work fast. But “to me, that didn’t seem like a tall order. I had worked on air bags on cars at 60 miles per hour – and they deployed,” he said.
He knew he could design and produce a good biometric lock. Building a business around it would be harder, because he didn’t have experience in that. He looked for an incubator, finding one called TechTown Detroit.
“I had a massive network of people. I knew those who had CAD, software, mechanical. But I had zero idea how to pull it all together. That’s what I hoped I would get out of TechTown.”
At the time, the entrepreneurship hub was only accepting teams. He talked its leaders into accepting him, and took a day off of work every week for four months to complete the course. At the end of it, he won the pitch contest and $15,000.
That gave him some momentum. He applied for Smart Tech Challenges Foundation grant of $100,000 — and won. Backed by Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, the foundation invests in and promotes smart gun technology.
That $100,000 enabled him to build a prototype and to get noticed by local angel investors, including Tom LaSorda, former CEO of Mercedes, and David Farbman, founder of Carbon Media.
“They’re passionate investors. They want return, and I know I can give them that,” he said. But he had to learn to step outside his engineering shoes and into those of an entrepreneur.
“I like to underpromise and overdeliver,” he said. “That’s antithetical to raising funds.”
After they agreed to fund him, they told him to quit his job. With his innate caution coming into play, he agreed — reluctantly. “Now, it makes sense,” he said.
With three employees, the company is beginning to hum, and Kiyani expects to turn a profit in 2019. It’s selling about 500 locks a month, said a marketing consulting working with Sentinl.
It’s sold on sites including gunsafe.com, Amazon, Brownells, Cabela’s and glockstore.com, currently for $199 (a price that allows it to be profitable on each transaction). “We’ve been playing with the price,” Kiyani said. “I don’t know what the right price is … When do people drop their expectation of a quality product?”
The next step is designing more versions of the lock to fit different weapons. Right now, the lock only fits handguns, including Glocks, most Smith & Wessons, and some Sig Sauers.
“We raising money to add more guns and hit the next level of sales,” he said. “It would take about $2 million.”
Already successful beyond his expectations, Kiyani is torn about his next step, feeling the pressure to scale quickly. If he doesn’t decide on an acquisition, he thinks finding an investor won’t be easy.
Gun businesses are unfamiliar territory to venture capitalists. Many in Silicon Valley have an aversion to physical products, and the gun business is sometimes seen as untouchable. With so many other things to invest in, why invite a political headache?
But Kiyani doesn’t see it that way. He’s well aware of the number of children who pick up their parent’s guns every day: one in three children lives in a home with a gun. In the three or four minutes it took you to read this story, one child died or was injured by gunfire, based on the public health research.
“I’ve been a safety engineer all my life,” he said. “I felt this was a responsibility as a citizen.”
January 30, 2019 at 12:29PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs