State Lawmakers Need a Better Strategy to Make Regulatory Sandbox Programs a Success

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In the age of Web3 and the metaverse, the term “sandbox” has suddenly taken on a new meaning. No long just a fun place for kids play in, but a series of public policy programs to encourage innovation by entrepreneurs. Now foreign governments and several U.S. states are competing to build the better sandbox to attract the benefits of innovation to their respective jurisdictions.

Sandbox programs can help attract high-potential startups and technology companies by providing an experimenting space for launching innovative financial products. However, for the programs to become successful, state lawmakers and regulators must make it easier for new startups to apply and join. Fortunately, there are examples they can follow.

Arizona became the first U.S. state to launch a sandbox program in March 2018, which has attracted 10 companies since to date. Hawaii’s Digital Currency Sandbox, which began accepting applications in March 2020, currently includes 15 companies. At the federal level, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has admitted several participants to its Compliance Assistance Sandbox and Trial Disclosure Sandbox. As of January 2022, at least 11 states have announced the creation of sandbox programs, and several states, such as Louisiana and Ohio, are considering legislation to establish similar programs.

Yet, with a few exceptions, most U.S. sandbox programs have been unsuccessful in attracting participants. For example, Wyoming’s two financial technology (FinTech) sandbox programs began accepting applications in January 2020, but the program had no participants as of November 2021. West Virginia’s FinTech sandbox has only admitted one participant even though the state’s legislature passed the sandbox legislation in March 2020. Likewise, according to publicly available information and correspondence with state regulators, FinTech and insurance-focused sandboxes in KentuckyNevada, and Utah have yet to accept any participants — even though these states established their sandbox programs in 2020 or earlier.

While there are many reasons for this lack of participation, overly strict entry criteria are a common problem affecting these programs. For instance, the FinTech sandbox programs in West Virginia and Wyoming require potential applicants to demonstrate physical presence in the state. And while Utah appears to have removed this requirement for its FinTech sandbox, the Utah Commerce Department notes that potential applicants must still “have an established physical location in Utah.”

Such mandatory physical presence requirements pose an additional barrier for non-resident companies — especially as the COVID-19 pandemic increases the prevalence of remote work. Expanding the eligibility criteria for non-resident firms can help state-level sandboxes attract potential applicants that might not have the resources or market incentives to relocate to a different state. 

In contrast, Hawaii’s digital currency sandbox, which has the highest number of companies in the U.S., allows entry to non-Hawaii businesses. This flexibility has allowed Hawaii to attract FinTech and money service businesses headquartered across the country. Arizona’s FinTech sandbox also allows non-resident companies to participate. And, of course, the CFPB’s federal sandbox programs have no state-specific physical presence requirements. Removing such requirements for applicants can help states like North Carolina and Florida, which recently created their own sandbox programs, to attract more companies. 

Read the full article at Real Clear Policy.