Interview with David Naczycz, executive director of the Fintech & Sports Wagering Innovation Center
For me, one of the great things about attending TechUnited:NJ events is having the chance to meet people from all over the state doing interesting things in tech.
In June, at the organization’s BetterCapital Conference, in Asbury Park, I met David Naczycz, executive director of the FinTech & Sports Wagering Innovation Center, at the New Jersey City University School of Business (Jersey City).
Frankly, I hadn’t heard much about this Innovation Center before, so we sat down for a Zoom interview a few weeks later.
ES: Hi David, tell me about the Innovation Center
DN: Governor Murphy’s vision is to focus on certain industries where New Jersey companies can excel. As part of his plan, he directed the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) to make investments in those industries. The NJEDA has developed the Innovation Center program to set up innovation centers in partnership with universities around the state focused on specific industries.
Back in 2021, NJEDA and NJCU [New Jersey City University] came to an agreement to set up the FinTech & Sports Wagering Innovation Center here at the NJCU School of Business. The industries we are focused on are fintech and sports wagering. They put those together because there is a significant overlap there. So, we are focused on that intersection of those two industries, as well as the individual industries themselves.
We view ourselves as a technology innovation center. So, when we’re looking at fintech, obviously it is technology, but even when we’re looking at sports betting, we’re looking at the tech side of the business. Some of what we do is going to impact the retail and brick-and-mortar side of these businesses because it will focus both on the online side of this and the back end. Remember, the “DraftKings” of the world are tech companies. They’re selling a tech product. If you look at who works there, it’s mostly tech people. So that’s how we view ourselves: as a tech innovation center.
ES: So, what’s been happening at the Center?
DN: We spent the early months on the basics, and we’re just getting the organization set up, the website online, and we’re setting up social media accounts — getting the basics lined up, so we can move on to more directed programs.
Now we’re in the process of planning our calendar, to launch programming in the fall and go forward from there. The programs are going to fall into three buckets: Bucket number one is ecosystem building. So we’re going to be building community in both the fintech and sports-wagering industries here in New Jersey. And that looks like networking events, seminars, conferences, things like that. We’re in talks right now to bring a sports-wagering conference here to New Jersey. So, we’ve got a number of things happening on that front.
The second bucket is workforce development, particularly for underserved populations. NJCU is a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. One of the things we’re going to be doing is creating courses, seminars, certificate programs and the like, to upskill people for careers in fintech and/or sports wagering. We’re going to provide those programs to both college students like the ones that NJCU already serves and also to professionals already in the industry.
While we are located at and associated with NJCU, any programs we do with students will be open to other schools in the state. I’m in the process of speaking to other schools like Rutgers, Saint Peter’s, Rowan and others to involve them in programs we will be doing.
The third bucket is to incubate new businesses and new technologies with programming aimed particularly at underserved entrepreneurs, really targeting them. What that’s going to look like as we get going here is we’re going to build out space at the university. We’ll put in coworking, put in offices for startups, bring in experts to help coach and educate startup founders on various topics that will help them get their ideas off the ground and connect them to funders in the state.
ES: What problems are the FinTech & Sports Wagering Innovation Center solving?
One problem we are solving is the ecosystem problem. If you go on Meetup.com you can find a bunch of groups for fintech, but they are all across the river. And the sports wagering industry doesn’t seem to have any events. Yet both of these industries have a huge presence in New Jersey, particularly in northern New Jersey.
The other problems we’re looking at solving have come out of the research we’ve done, identifying where the needs in the industry are right now. One of the problems that sports betting has is the gambling industry has tremendous negative perceptions out in the world, in the marketplace. Some of that is deserved and some of it is not, but the fact is that they need to fix that problem. They can’t continue to operate with those negative perceptions. It impacts their ability to grow their businesses. It impacts their businesses in terms of regulations and fines. It impacts their ability to attract top talent.
ES: Tell me about some solutions coming out of the Center.
As one of our solutions, we’re creating a program called “Gamble4Good,” which is going to be focused on how the industry deals with the negative perceptions and becomes an industry that is respected and legitimate in the eyes of the public, in the eyes of politicians and in the eyes of potential employees. So we’re going to be doing programs to further work on responsible gambling, and we are going to be doing work on ESG [Environment, Social and Governance] and on DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion].
We’re also working on a solution at the intersection between fintech and gambling. There’s an overlap there, and fintech is developing a lot of technology that gambling needs. It needs the KYC [Know Your Customer] technology [tech that protects financial institutions against fraud, corruption, money laundering and terrorist financing]. It needs AML [Anti Money Laundering] technology. It needs the anti-fraud stuff. It needs AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning. The industry needs those tools to be responsible and good operators. And there are other business reasons why they need those tools. So, facilitating the flow of technology and innovation from fintech into gaming and sports betting is another one of the solutions we’re going to be working on.
ES: Why do you think NJCU was chosen as the site for the Center?
DN: NJCU has the oldest fintech program in the state, although it’s pretty young. It’s five years old. Jersey City is close to many of the fintech and sports-wagering companies in our state.
ES: Finally, tell us a little about your background.
DN: I have a background in management, consulting and entrepreneurship. I still own a company in the travel and tourism space that does guided tours around the country. So that’s a company I founded and scaled, and then stepped away from last year to take on this opportunity. Right before that, I was a change management consultant, working with cities, corporations and nonprofits. I founded a nonprofit when I was living in my hometown of Detroit. So my background in entrepreneurship and in starting nonprofits and working with nonprofits is what the NJEDA and NJCU were interested in bringing on, because I’m basically starting this nonprofit — and the FinTech & Sports Wagering Innovation Center is a nonprofit — from scratch.
I wound up in New Jersey because my wife is from New Jersey. We’ve been here two years.