Deal Dive: VCs are no longer gunshy about firearm startups

Kai Kloepfer started biometric “smart” gun startup Biofire as a science fair project after the Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting in 2012 brought the U.S.’s gun violence problem close to home. Kloepfer began thinking of ways to solve the problem using what he knows: technology.

Twelve years later, that project has turned into Biofire, a firearms company that makes weapons that use fingerprints and facial recognition technology to unlock only for their owners and registered users. When the gun leaves a registered user’s hands, it automatically relocks, Kloepfer told TechCrunch+. This is all done on a closed-loop system meant to keep it secure and prevent potential hacking.

Biofire’s system is designed to prevent firearms from falling into unintended hands. Kloepfer knows that Biofire can’t solve the gun violence epidemic, but he feels that it can make a difference, especially for children. Firearms are now the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., with 29% being suicide and 3.5% being accidental, which are things Biofire could help prevent.

“It lends well to a technology solution,” Kloepfer said. “It’s not criminals committing crimes; it’s well-meaning gun owners making mistakes. It is not an intention thing, and it’s not a lack of training. Everybody makes mistakes. Maybe a mistake is not the end of the world, but a mistake here can be lethal.”

I personally am not interested in guns, nor do I think untrained civilians should keep non-hunting-related firearms in their homes, but this company is still interesting to me because it’s the first firearm company that has gotten institutional VC backing. Biofire said it raised a $7 million Series A extension round this week from investors, including Founders Fund, CAZ Investments, Valhalla Ventures and Liquid 2 Ventures.

Most VCs can’t back categories like this due to agreements and vice clauses with their LPs that prevent them from investing in businesses with a high level of risk, or in certain categories like weapons. Kloepfer said he did struggle to raise institutional funding in the company’s first few rounds and mainly was backed by angel investors, but the funding landscape has since changed in Biofire’s favor.

“The pool of venture funds, especially back in 2019, that were investing into deep tech hardware businesses and deep tech firearm businesses was very small,” Kloepfer said. “[The latest round] is entirely institutional investors. That is a sign that there have been macro shifts in the venture community.”

While Kloepfer acknowledges that his company isn’t the first startup to try to build a smarter gun, he points out that Biofire is the first to break through that funding roadblock. He said the change of mindset is largely due to the rise in VCs backing defense tech startups.

This makes sense. When the defense tech sector started seeing venture interest, it was almost equally puzzling. But at the end of the day, investors follow the money, and defense tech has grown into a category with numerous success stories such as Palantir Technologies and Anduril. LPs got more comfortable, too, once they saw the potential returns. The same could happen here.

Rohan Pujara, a general partner at Valhalla Ventures, said it’s smart for venture investors to move into categories like this. For one, because some firms won’t invest in such companies, there is less competition for deals, which also allows startups in the category to build stronger moats for themselves. He added that Biofire is innovation at its core in a category where people want safer options, but large incumbents dominate the market and they don’t need to innovate if they don’t want to.

“We should never block off entire categories from innovation,” Pujara said. “There is a host of areas that are really interesting and need innovation and are [ripe] for innovation because incumbents don’t really care about their customers. These areas might be in a traditional VC vice clause, [but] we want to support these businesses and think there is a lot of progress to be made.”

This thesis made me think of Vice Ventures, which was one of the pioneer venture funds backing sectors like cannabis, alcohol and sex tech. Investing in companies that fall into categories many firms avoid means there is less competition for the best deals.

Though I firmly don’t think that anyone needs a non-hunting firearm in their home, we aren’t heading toward a gunless future anytime soon in the U.S., if we ever get there at all. Better solutions to fix even part of the current gun violence problem in any way seems at least like a step in the right direction.