When Simon Nynens, the former CEO of Wayside Technology Group (Eatontown), first came to NJIT in 2018, he wanted to help the school as much as he could. He was especially drawn to the diverse, innovative and curious students at NJIT, and to the school’s dedicated teachers and administrators.
NJIT executives thought he could best be deployed in an administrative role, given his experience, so that’s where they put him to work. Nynens’ first job was revitalizing and renaming the Enterprise Development Center, now known as “VentureLink@NJIT.” Later, he moved on to reorganize the New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), selling its subsidiary BioCentriq (Newark) for $73 million and forging industry partnerships, such as the one with Merck, which created the Digital Sciences Studio program.
Let’s start with your involvement with VentureLink@NJIT
We started with the renewal of the Enterprise Development Center, with 98,000 square feet of office and lab space, and 11,000 square feet of coworking space, the state’s largest startup incubator in New Jersey. Together with friends, family and colleagues, we came up with the name “VentureLink,” linking ventures to the university. Significant investments were made to modernize and renew the startup and acceleration center. VentureLink’s purpose is not only incubation, but also to help local entrepreneurs as well as acting as an accelerator for established companies. By “accelerate,” I mean connecting new companies to other companies, to the NJIT faculty as well as the students. That’s what we did with VentureLink. It is always fun when you see the results, especially the signs going up in a revitalized space was a great moment. While executing that strategy, I also helped the university with its other entrepreneurial efforts.
Reorganizing and updating NJII came next, right?
Yes. My mission was to look at NJII in a broader scope and see how we could update it. Can we renew it? Can we build a foundation for the next five to 10 years? So, that’s what we did. We reorganized and refocused NJII. You know, we got our own CRM [customer relationship management] system, accounting system, payroll system and all that good stuff. We wanted to build a foundation upon which we could build out the mission of NJII to be an innovative research organization dedicated to scientific research, education, economic development and urban revitalization within New Jersey. NIII wants to contribute to turning ideas into workable and scalable solutions.
Tell us about the BioCentriq sale.
First, we looked internally at BioCentriq, which had been evolving within NJII under the great leadership of Haro Hartounian. We decided to set it up as a separate for-profit subsidiary of NJII. And then, two years later, we began exploring the sale of BioCentriq through a bid process involving more than 50 companies. At that time, we ran the whole process, including hiring an investment bank and getting our own transaction attorneys to work with the board of NJII to decide who the best buyer would be. I drew on my early career experience working in auditing as well as mergers and acquisitions for EY. We sold BioCentriq for $73 million, which, in terms of proceeds, we believe was a record-setting high for a public university in New Jersey.
Tell us about the reorganization and staffing of NJII.
At the same time, we were really focused on the internal running of NJII and making sure the right people were in the right positions within the organization. We hired a lot more people from private industry, promoted from within and motivated the team to really connect private industry to the university; and in the process, our team became much more diverse. We also separated NJII into four divisions: healthcare, entrepreneurship, defense and homeland security and professional and corporate education. In defense and homeland security, led by William Marshall, there were multiple exciting initiatives, including a body-worn-camera project, as well as working closely with the U.S. army. One of the most recent major accomplishments is COMET. COMET is a Collaborative Operationalized Manufacturing Education and Training center close to Picatinny Arsenal. This is a space where private companies don’t have to go on base, but they can set up shop there, they can manufacture there, they can invite people to visit there. The facility has a whole manufacturing component in the back.
We also worked on our healthcare division, which needed a restructuring, as well. I’m very pleased to say that we were able to find a great leader in Jennifer D’Angelo, who really worked hard to reestablish our leadership position in New Jersey.
We also hired Deirdre Christofalo to lead continuing education and noncredit training. And then we combined the venture and incubation and entrepreneurship teams with Will Lutz at the head, another great hire. And now we have the four main divisions, completely supported by our own back office team. This created a foundation for a solid, sustainable NJII.
What stands out for you overall about your experience at NJIT and NJII?
The students that I met and mentored at NJIT! I think this university is still an undiscovered jewel. There are other universities with students who might be more outgoing, and they know everyone on campus within two weeks. The students at NJIT may be a little more introverted, but they have amazing stories to tell, are amazingly smart and intuitive, and add real value to any company they will later work for. It was amazing to learn about the students and the journeys they took to get here.
One of the things we left out of this interview was a discussion of the student and alumni-led startups.
Well, we made great progress in that area, as well. NJIT has some amazingly entrepreneurial faculty and students. Just one example: I was with an alumni team called “Glyde” at a client when they were pitching their services. Glyde is a company that focuses on on-premises digital ordering for restaurants and other facilities. While I was sitting there, I realized that this entrepreneur pitching this great product was indeed a student only a short time ago. To see how far he had come, and how far these students will undoubtedly go, was a wonderful realization. They pitched their idea like experienced entrepreneurs. These startups are representing themselves in a professional way, starting at NJIT, and the great work continues by Will Lutz and his team. I am proud of all of our NJII team members and the foundation that we built together. I wish them, as well as NJIT, all the best!
So, what is next for you?
I will continue my consulting work for companies and act as an organizational and leadership expert. I am also exploring several interesting propositions. Besides this, I am focused on completing my doctorate degree in business administration at Drexel University. My thesis is likely to be centered on the impact of a CEO’s belief system on their view of ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance]. How come some CEO’s truly pursue ESG initiatives while others are doing the bare minimum to meet any applicable obligation? Belief systems, prior experiences and personal values seem to play a large role. I’m really interested in the environment, social justice, corporate governance as well as mythology and the subconscious part of leadership, and now I get to pursue that interest in a scientific setting.