NI technology sector ‘thriving’ despite pandemic
Technology leaders in Northern Ireland believe there is a “huge opportunity” for the development of the industry as it emerges from the pandemic.
New share investment in companies based in Northern Ireland was more than £100m in 2021, according to Catalyst.
This compares with about £5m of venture capital investment in 2014, and just over £44m in 2020.
Catalyst says that despite the challenges of the past two years, the tech industry is “thriving”.
“There is a number of ways innovation can change, and disruption and global events can actually drive innovation,” Adrian Johnston, Catalyst director of strategic business development said.
“What you have seen is that the digital and technology sector has responded with agility to that need.
“We are seeing that the technologies have continued to thrive and grow.
“We have seen that within the companies that Catalyst support, we have 155 companies across three hubs in Northern Ireland, ranging from scale-ups and start-ups to FDI (Foreign Direct Investment).”
Catalyst is an “independent, not-for-profit” organisation with technology hubs in Belfast, Ballymena and Londonderry, supporting innovators and entrepreneurs.
Earlier this month, it unveiled a five-year strategy in a bid to generate “significant economic benefits for Northern Ireland” by enabling more people to “access opportunities created by innovative industries”.
Its targets include:
- 1,000 individuals from under-represented groups participating in innovation programmes to launch 50 new products
- Supporting the development of 100 prominent role model entrepreneurs from diverse gender and socio-economic backgrounds
- Supporting 20 new sustainable start-ups founded by females and/or non-university graduates in the next 12 months
Mr Johnston believes Northern Ireland has great potential as a technology centre for future young entrepreneurs.
“Our facilities are at 99% capacity and continue to be so,” he said.
“We see a huge amount of interest and the pandemic has shifted some people’s mindsets…people are more interested in career change and a career change might be into entrepreneurship and digital technologies.”
Pandemic led to pivot on career path
Sian Farrell, is co-founder and chief scientific officer at start-up company, StimOxygen, which is developing a potential treatment for cancer patients.
Based at the Ulster University Coleraine, she got involved in the initiative during the pandemic.
The spin-off firm’s focus is solving the problem of hypoxia (low-levels of oxygen) in solid tumours.
“There are very low levels of oxygen within tumours for treatments such as radiotherapy that work by converting oxygen into a weapon against cancer – they can’t work if there is no oxygen there.
“We have developed an oxygen generating nanoparticle that goes to the tumour site, breaks down there and it can boost the effects of radiotherapy.”
Sian trained as a pharmacist, but helped form StimOxygen while studying for her PhD, after participating in the Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research project.
During the pandemic, Sian realised she could pivot in her career, and was impressed by the possibilities in the technology industry in Northern Ireland.
“You wouldn’t believe the start-ups, the ideas and the technology that we have, I think the main challenge for us in Northern Ireland is we have to learn to scale it up faster and bigger.”
There has been a steady flow of technology jobs in the past two years, with about 58% of total greenfield FDI (foreign direct investment where a company establishes operations in another country) received into Northern Ireland in 2020 and 2021 from the software and IT sector, according to FDI Markets.
There have also been significant business deals.
In February, Belfast-based software firm Overwatch was bought by US company Benchling in a deal worth more than £10m, while last year, Belfast IT firm Cloudsmith raised $15m (£10.98m) from mainly US investors.
The technology industry in Northern Ireland will be competing with other sectors for financial support in the future, in a climate where the cost of living is increasing and there may be reduced availability of public funding.
There has also been a sell-off in shares of technology companies in the US in recent weeks, which may also affect the broader funding picture.
However, Mr Johnston believes projects such as the Belfast Region City Deal and the Derry City and Strabane District Council City Deal will still provide a “huge amount of opportunity over the next 15 years”.
It was announced earlier this month that a £50m data innovation project will be led by a team at Ulster University’s Magee campus in Derry.
The Smart Manufacturing Data Hub will enable small and medium sized manufacturing firms to increase their productivity and competitiveness by capturing and utilising their data.
Queen’s University in Belfast has also confirmed its new £58m Global Innovation Institute (GII) will open in 2025.
The Innovation City Belfast project aims to support investments in digital innovation and “maximise the impact” of the £1bn Belfast Region City Deal.
Its priorities include:
- Developing a major Innovation District from Queen’s Island to York Street
- Delivering a city-centre focused Smart District
- Establishing an Innovation Investment Service
- Building the workforce’s skills for new jobs in the digital economy
Clare Guinness, of Innovation City Belfast, says the pandemic has “expedited” its plans to go about “digitising the city”.
It hopes to eventually harness specialisms such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cyber security, and regulatory technology which are being developed at universities in Northern Ireland.
“What the pandemic proved to us all was the absolute necessity of the digital economy and how resilient that has been,” Ms Guinness said.
“We want to make sure we have a digitally enabled city that is resilient and ready for the future, so that if your pandemics or shocks come to our city, we have the wherewithal to deal with them.
“A lot of that will come from the digitally enabled city.”
This will set in place the conditions to “support innovation and the deployment of advanced urban services for citizens”.
The public consultation for the framework ended in March, with the council aiming to launch its delivery framework in September.
Head of Smart Belfast, Deborah Colville, says it is “an exciting time for Belfast with significant investments in digital innovation being harnessed towards improving the everyday lives of our citizens”.
Emily McDaid, who has experience of marketing and public relations in the technology sector, also thinks the industry is “thriving”.
But recruiting and retaining talent remains a challenge, with companies “having to get creative”.
“Incentives like trips abroad, bonuses, inflated salaries are all being seen in the market right now,” she added.
However, Ms McDaid still considers Northern Ireland “a great place for technology”.
“There are great graduates from the two universities, Ulster University and Queen’s, as well as those who have gone elsewhere and come back,” she said.
“The cost of living is lower in Northern Ireland compared to other major cities in England and Scotland.
“It puts us in a good position for companies who want to locate their global or regional headquarters here.
“The story hasn’t changed, it is similar to what it was before the pandemic – it is about responding to the way business is done and the opportunities that are out there.”