RTP startup founded by military vet automates gun cleaning
Police officer Jeremy Ingraham wasn’t a fan of spending the three to four hours needed to clean his AR-15 rifle to his own stringent standards.
“I do not like cleaning weapons,” said Ingraham, 26, a military veteran and a member of the police force in Prince George’s County in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. “A lot of gun people do like cleaning guns, but not me. … It’s dirty. It’s time consuming. It takes time away from other things I do.”
So last year he took a flier on spending $199.95 on the Motorized Weapons Cleaning System created and sold online by RTP startup BLAZnTECH.
Now, what used to be an hours-long task to clean his AR-15 takes him about 45 minutes. He also uses the BLAZnTECH system to clean his two handguns: a Smith & Wesson M&P 40 and a Glock 43.
“Originally, I thought the price was a little steep,” Ingraham said of the BLAZnTECH system. “But it has cut down on my cleaning time by so much that it’s impossible not to be satisfied with it.”
Military veteran Benjamin Bondar, the founder and CEO of BLAZnTECH, has invented a one-of-a-kind, pocket-sized, battery-operated power tool for quickly and easily cleaning a variety of rifles and handguns.
The patent-pending system replaces manual cleaning with brushes attached to a motor rotating at 300 revolutions per minute. It’s essentially a miniature drill with different-sized brushes rather than drill bits. Final cleaning is accomplished by covering the brushes with a white cotton “brush-sock.”
“To really get it clean, you stick the sock on there,” said William Tate, BLAZnTECH’s chief financial officer. “It’s the white glove test.”
Manual cleaning typically involves taking a gun apart, but BLAZnTECH’s slogan could be: No disassembly required.
Up to now, Bondar said, gun maintenance “hasn’t evolved since guns first appeared. It’s traditional rods and wire brushes.”
BLAZnTECH may be innovative, but it’s also cash-strapped. The startup sold out of its first production run of 1,000 systems but needs to raise cash to produce more. Since late January the company has raised $76,280 from more than 150 investors on crowdfunding site Wefunder. BLAZnTECH hopes to raise as much as $1 million.
“I haven’t focused on sales at all,” Bondar said. “I’ve been focused on getting more money because I started this company with nothing.”
Regardless of the amount the company ultimately raises, the Wefunder investors will own 10 percent of the business. Investors also receive perks, such as a cleaning system and a 10 percent lifetime discount on future purchases.
“Like Elon Musk said, creating the car was easy,” said Bondar, 28. “Production is always the biggest challenge.”
The hope: military contracts
Adding to the challenge is that the company is looking to Americanize its manufacturing.
Up to now the system’s components have been manufactured in China and assembled in California by Pride Industries, a nonprofit that employs people with disabilities. But BLAZnTECH is talking to contract manufacturers in North Carolina about shifting everything stateside.
“In the next 18 months, we think we can get everything sourced here,” Tate said. He and Bondar are the company’s only full-time employees, supplemented by a team of part-timers.
Bondar said he reluctantly turned to China for manufacturing at the outset because he was dealing with “limited resources.”
For BLAZnTECH, upping its production capacity and being able to tout that its product is “Made in the U.S.A.” are crucial to winning the military contracts it covets.
“The biggest thing right now is to prove to them that we are actually capable of delivering thousands of cleaning systems,” Bondar said.
Keeping weapons clean is crucial for soldiers because a dirty gun is prone to jamming.
BLAZnTECH is based at RTP’s Bunker Labs RDU, part of a national nonprofit network of incubator spaces for entrepreneurs with a military background. It offers free space, instruction on the basics of starting and running a business and mentoring.
BLAZnTECH is “a lot further along than a vast majority of our companies,” said Dean Bundschu, the executive director of Bunker Labs RDU and a former U.S. Army captain who uses the BLAZnTECH system. “They’re way beyond proof of concept. They’ve even proven that people will buy the darn thing.”
In addition to selling out its first run of 1,000 cleaning systems, BLAZnTECH has 2,000 pre-orders from customers who pre-paid a discounted price – $169.95 – to be in line to get one when production resumes.
“The win for the customer is, they get a 15 percent discount,” Tate said. “The win for us is we get the funding upfront so we can prime our production pump.”
Ben Stout, 51, a Delta Air Lines pilot who lives in Raleigh, uses the BLAZnTECH system to clean his AR-15 and has recommended it to his friends.
“BLAZnTECH makes it very quick and easy to accomplish the same task in just as good a fashion” as a manual cleaning, he said.
Different customers report different cleaning times with the BLAZnTECH system, which appears to be a function of personal preference for just what constitutes a proper cleaning. But they uniformly report a significant reduction in cleaning time versus doing it manually.
Although Ingraham, the police officer, takes 45 minutes to clean his AR-15 with the BLAZnTECH system versus three to four hours for a manual cleaning, Stout does it much faster both ways.
Stout used to devote 15 to 20 minutes to cleaning his rifle manually. But with the BLAZnTECH sysem, “I can complete it under 4 to 5 minutes, easily,” he said.
Seeing a need
Bondar was born in Russia-occupied Crimea where, he said, his father was “a Christian evangelist that was harassed by the KGB.” The family emigrated to the United States when Bondar was 3, and he grew up in California.
Bondar, who served four years in the U.S. Army, first recognized the need for an automated weapons cleaning system when he was in boot camp. There he would shoot thousands of rounds at the target range and then would be ordered out on patrol – without enough time in-between to clean his rifle.
“I was thinking, there has to be a better way,” he said.
His online search for a solution came up empty. So Bondar, who has tinkered with electronic devices since he was a kid, applied himself to developing a better way once he left the Army.
Over the course of two years he developed a prototype, then refined it again and again and again with the help of an engineer and product designer he retained. The biggest obstacle was designing the system to clean a firearm through the ejection port – the opening that throws out empty shell cases – to avoid having to take the gun apart.
Bondar founded BLAZnTECH in June 2014 and launched the cleaning system in late 2015 with the help of $150,000 raised from friends and family – which came on top of the tens of thousands of dollars of his own savings that he plowed into the business. The company also sells replacement brushes and a 25-pack of brush-socks for the cleaning system for $5.95 each.
Bondar started BLAZnTECH when he was living on the West Coast, but he moved to Charlotte last summer to be close to his in-laws – and to be near Bunker Labs RDU, whose support for military veterans with an entrepreneurial bent was enormously appealing.
“I like the fact that with veterans, they have my sense of humor, my (determination) of getting the job done no matter what it takes,” Bondar said.
It was through Bunker Labs RDU that Bondar met Tate and the part-timers that comprise the BLAZnTECH team.
Tate, whose resume includes 18 years in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces as well as stints as a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley and Prudential Financial, stressed that the company is “100 percent vet owned and led and managed.”
BLAZnTECH’s focus on winning a military contract is well-timed.
Bondar notes that, in addition to President Donald Trump’s zeal for pumping up the military’s budget, new Defense Secretary James Mattis stressed during his confirmation hearing that maintenance needed to be upgraded.
But the consumer market also looms large.
It’s been estimated that the U.S. has more guns than people. And each and every one of those guns needs to be cleaned.
David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii