Isaiah Kacyvenski Sees Market-Disrupting Opportunities in Sports Tech

SportTechie’s Athletes Voice series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. SportTechie spoke with former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, who recently founded venture capital firm Will Ventures, about how he transitioned from football to the investment world, and where he sees the greatest opportunities.

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Isaiah Kacyvenski was a four-year starter at Harvard University, winning the Ivy League Rookie of the Year Award and being named to the conference’s first team three times. He was drafted No. 119 by the Seattle Seahawks in 2000, making him the highest pick from Harvard in NFL history. Kacyvenski went on to play six seasons with the Seahawks, and one with the St. Louis Rams. After moving to the Oakland Raiders in 2007, he was sidelined with a knee injury, and decided to retire the following year.

Growing up, Kacyvenski saw both sports and school as a way to build a better life. He had a difficult childhood. His family was homeless at times, his father struggled with alcoholism, and his mother was killed by a truck the day of his biggest high school football game.

While in the league, Kacyvenski began learning about both investing in and running companies, and after retiring he returned to Harvard for business school. He became the global head of business development for MC10, a company specializing in wearable healthcare analytics. Then in 2016, he founded the Sports Innovation Lab, a market research firm dedicated to the world of sports technology. Last year, he launched Will Ventures with co-founder Brian Reilly to invest in emerging technologies that while connected to sports, show promise to open up bigger markets.

Kacyvenski serves on both the executive and athlete advisory boards of the NFLPA’s accelerator, the OneTeam Collective. He is also a member of the NFLPA’s Health and Safety Committee, the chairman of the Sports Advisory Board for the Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics at Northwestern, and part of the executive board of the USC Center for Body Computing. Kacyvenski is still connected to Harvard and is an advisor to the university’s Football Players Health Study, which seeks to improve the health and wellbeing of all former players.

CES

“It’s always great to kind of get a glimpse into what was, and what is, and what will be. And I think one of the biggest benefits of going to CES is to really reconnect and to continue to develop strategic partnerships, especially where I’m at now with a venture capital fund.”

“I look at CES as a large data gathering mission. Whether that be hands on, being able to see the show floor, meetings you may have. Really a way to gather and meet, and re-connect with a bunch of information and understand kind of what is to come around that. You walk the floor, being targeted about that, being efficient with time or meetings.”

“My busiest CES was probably five years ago… I had over 40 meetings in a two-and-a-half day timeframe. An absolutely blistering pace.”

Will Ventures

“I started tracking companies with Brian [Reilly] over five years ago. We’ve now looked at over 5,000 companies over the last five years. We’ve got a pipeline of over a 100 companies we like.”

“We’ve earned the right to a point of view in this space where far too often you see hobbyist investors deploying capital. That’s not to speak bad, it’s just that we see opportunity in this space.”

“Will Ventures is the world’s only research backed venture capital fund focused on sports technology broadly defined sports technology opening up large adjacent markets. And the focus on those large adjacent markets being healthcare, fitness, digital media, IoT, esports, and sports betting. Those are kind of the main areas of focus where we say ‘Hey the market’s not just sports.’ Sports is a great testbed, but how do you open up large adjacent markets.”

“[The name] speaks to the power of human will, which is very, very important to us. Very authentic in a lot of ways, but it also speaks to a part of our investment piece, which is really focused on this idea of human performance and optimizing that, and having ways to quantify human performance in almost every single facet. And it also speaks to the types of entrepreneurs we want to invest in. The ones who show that power of human will against all odds, and to be resilient and succeed in the face of those long odds. Those are the types of entrepreneurs we want to invest in.”

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Opportunities in Sports Tech

“Sports has always been looked at as a niche market, which if you narrowly define it, it is. The exit, the comps, are not there necessarily to justify investment dollars.”

“I think it’s really been overlooked. We see huge value, we see huge value in the very near future as we start to navigate this space in a much more efficient way.”

“The broad areas that we look at [are] human performance, we see areas in human performance that are ripe for disruption. There’s bigger broad areas that are kind of tangential or adjacent to that—like insurance—that are ripe for disruption. We see broad areas in an extension of that, from pain management to sports medicine, broadly speaking, right for disruption. We see huge opportunities in genetics, genomics, gut microbiome, nutrition in general. Huge areas for disruption. This brings in a variety of skill sets and domain expertise that you have to build a network around to have a deep perspective.”

“The other side is that personalization of digital media. Sports, as a form of entertainment and media, is the last captive audience. A live sporting event is the last thing in our lives that we refuse to time shift. The value over the next 10 years is going to skyrocket. And that as a testbed is extremely valuable, as an engagement tool as we cut the linear cable and move to OTT and personalized viewing on devices. Huge opportunity there. This massive shift in creation, consumption, and distribution of media, specifically with sports as the ultimate testbed. And that covers sports betting all the way to esports as well.”

Investing 101

“The first thing they tell you in the NFL is ‘Be scared, because you’re going to lose all your money if you don’t take care of your capital.’ They put a healthy dose of fear in every single player, for good reason.”

“When I [was] very first handed a check—I was signed with the Seahawks, drafted in the fourth round in 2000—I remember them handing me a check and realizing I had zero clue. [I had a] sciences background with chemistry, physics, calculus, earth science, whatever. I realized I didn’t have the background to actually handle money, to handle finance, and to handle investment. So I learned everything I could from the bottom up. Hired two financial advisors, peppered the crap out of them for as much information as I could learn about the public and private market.”

“I made my first private investment in 2003, in my third year in the NFL. From those investments on, I’ve got a little over 30 investments in my own personal angel portfolio. When I first started investing, I would sit in [during] the offseason with those companies I would invest in, and learn how to run a business. I’d shadow them, and learn how to run a business from the ground up. I continued to feed. I had lots of time in the offseason—I was doing this in 2003 when I was not in vogue.”

“Being an entrepreneur was one of the best steps you can actually take to becoming a really good investor … There’s far too many investors out there that have never been an entrepreneur, never understand what it feels like to be in the shoes of an entrepreneur. I understand what it is to build products. I understand what it is to have your back against the wall. I understand what it is to be faced with long odds.”

(Photo courtesy of Isaiah Kacyvenski)
From LB to VC

“My backup plan was if I didn’t play in the NFL I’d be a doctor. I grew up in poverty, I grew up with very little, I was homeless for chunks of my childhood, and I understood at a very young age that sports and academics were going to get me out of that, where I would be able to provide, if I had a family eventually.”

“By the time I retired after eight years playing, I decided medical school was out of the question. I still had a love and passion for medicine, healthcare, human physiology, but also realized that I was starting to develop a thesis around sports opening up large markets.”

“I paid special, very close attention [to] guys when I was playing when they retired and guys that challenged themselves and guys that didn’t challenge themselves. And I realized I needed to move and push, and push the boundary. [Knowing] how much I loved football, and how much I derived from that, I was going to have to recreate that in other aspects of my life. And being an entrepreneur was probably the closest thing I could come to have that same feeling of being a player. This idea of building a team, building a strategy, executing against that.”

Giving Back

“I still talk to a lot of players, current or retired. I always try to offer myself as a resource. I sit on the NFLPA Health and Safety Committee. I sit with great pride on the NFLPA’s OneTeam Collective both as an executive board member as well as a player advisory board [member].”

“[I want to] hand down knowledge and learning but also to really, really create a sense of empowerment amount players, to not waiting for things to be handed to you but actually to get your hands dirty and go figure it out.”

“Really being an example that can be set for a lot of the athletes … It’s an amazing platform that you have, go take advantage of that, and don’t shy away. Don’t shy away from asking questions, feed that curiosity just because you’ve got an amazing opportunity to do that.”

The NFLPA reviewed this content before publication.

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