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Raj Ramanand, Signifyd CEO and Co-Founder, on Belfast’s building culture

  • There is an ancient one-car garage on a leafy residential street in the town where I live.

    It’s the spot where 80 years ago, a guy named David Packard and a guy named Bill Hewlett flipped a coin to decide the name of their new company. Hewlett won — and Hewlett-Packard was born.

    That garage is now widely celebrated as the birthplace of Silicon Valley. It is both a monument and an inspiration to a culture that builds things, the symbolic centre of what followed — the microchip, the personal computer, the internet, the cloud, the iPhone, or Android, depending on your preference.

    In Belfast, of course, there are reminders in the Titanic Quarter of the audacious building culture epitomised by the linen trade, rope manufacturers, whiskey distillers and shipbuilders like Harland & Wolff that date back to the 19th century. That early industrialisation, which included engineering and building the Titanic and its sister ships, gave way to today’s industries, which are focused on software, algorithms and artificial intelligence.

    Since we started thinking about Belfast as a place where we want to create a substantial part of Signifyd’s future, the city’s industrial past and technological present have been front and centre in our thoughts.

    Signifyd is a culture that builds things. We’ve pioneered an industry, helping online retailers provide their customers with a smooth buying experience, without the fear of being taken advantage of by bad actors.

    But we’re just getting started. We need more smart people to continue with our accelerated global expansion and the expansion of the products and services we offer. When we started thinking about where in the world we would find those people, Belfast rose to the top of the list. We officially opened our Global R&D hub on High Street in February. Now we’re on a pace to hire 150 employees to advance our innovation as we empower retailers around the world.

    So, why Belfast?

    Today, the hashtag #BuiltinBelfast is inspired by a vibrant innovation culture in Northern Ireland that has plenty in common with those who worked at the Harland & Wolff shipyards generations ago. Those innovative forerunners had the confidence and know-how to set about building the biggest moveable, human-built object the world had ever seen — the RMS Titanic.

    Can you imagine the vision and risk tolerance it took to set out to build that ship? And consider the network of other visionaries and risk-takers required to move the project forward; the nimbleness to pivot when pivoting was required; the humility to learn from mistakes and come back with something even better.

    Those are the kinds of minds that fuel innovation. It’s the concentration of those kinds of minds that builds an innovation culture — a building culture — a culture that constantly aspires to solve problems that have never been solved.

    Look around Belfast today and you see the reminders of its early 20th century industrial might and the reality of its early 21st century technology prowess.

    Lesser known, but significant tech companies and startups, like Flint Studios, Made to Engage, Anomali, Alert Logic, Imperva, Proofpoint and WhiteHat are working among large global enterprises like IBM, SAP, Fujitsu, Deloitte, Xilinx and PwC, which opened its blockchain headquarters in Belfast in 2016. Key tech research and development is also going on for companies whose success is steeped in technology — Allstate, Citigroup and Liberty IT, which provides software and big data support for Liberty Mutual Insurance.

    Within the past decade, a media culture intertwined with the new economy has taken off, bolstered by Titanic Studios and featuring HBO’s production headquarters for the wildly popular Game of Thrones. 

    Belfast practically buzzes with innovation. There are tech meetups and hackathons — exponentially more such events than just seven years ago, according to Silicon Republic. More than a quarter of the companies in the Deloitte Ireland’s Tech Fast 50 are from Northern Ireland. The Financial Times recognized Belfast as one of the world’s top 10 Digital Economies of the Future. 

    And like Signifyd, Belfast’s technology resurgence is just getting started.

    No longer is Belfast’s primary tech role one of serving as a home to call centres and other operational functions for tech companies that are doing their innovating elsewhere. Belfast is no longer a city that sees its brightest residents leave to do their innovating in other parts of the world. The city is now a city of innovators inventing, designing and building the technology that is propelling companies forward.

    It is a city of innovative minds, innovative companies and innovative culture. That’s what we saw when we considered Belfast as the location for Signifyd’s research and development hub.

    Silicon Valley, of course, is an unparalleled success story: The multitude of efforts to recreate it in different geographies have largely fallen short. But in Belfast, my co-founder Michael Liberty and I saw a number of the ingredients that fed into Silicon Valley’s trajectory. We were confident that if we combined Signifyd’s Silicon Valley DNA with Belfast’s building culture that we could create a world-class innovation engine.

    We also realised that Belfast had something else — something unique. It’s a city whose own story holds the narrative of what is needed to build an innovation culture — vision, industriousness, optimism, perseverance, purpose, and a grounding in reality combined with a willingness, when necessary, to disregard the constraints that being realistic brings.

    Think about it. Belfast went from being one of the leading industrial cities in the world in the early 20th century to suffering through civil conflict in the 1920s and being devastated by German bombers during World War II. In the second half of the century it watched its population dwindle, in part because of outmigration inspired by the sectarian violence known as the Troubles.

    But with the Good Friday agreement, the Troubles waned and Belfast picked up where it left off — and then some. The Titanic of the 21st century is technology. And Belfast, stocked with bright minds, rich culture, world-class universities and a growing population, has seized its opportunity.

    We are pleased to have become a part of the city’s tech renaissance and we can hardly wait to see where it leads.

    Signifyd breaks down Belfast’s unique proposition
    Top universities: Look no further than Queen’s University, a global leader in cybersecurity and home to the UK’s prestigious Centre for Secure Information Technologies, and Ulster University, with its world-renowned Computer Science Research Institute.

    Eager investors: Belfast is the top investment location for U.S. cybersecurity development projects, according to fDi Intelligence, a foreign investment analytics organisation.

    Tolerance for failure: The sinking of the Titanic a century ago was a terrible tragedy. But the scale of the vision and the scale of the engineering required to build and launch it was a triumph of the human spirit that serves as an inspiration for generations right up to today.

    Dissatisfaction with the status quo: Belfast is teeming with thinkers and innovators who know there is a better way. We’ve run into them everywhere we turn in the city.

    Cooperation coexisting with competition: Incubators like Ormeau Baths, the burgeoning meet-up and hackathon scene and a roster of hundreds of startups that allow for cross-pollination as workers move between jobs creates a culture of constant learning.

    Critical mass of skilled employees: See top universities and hundreds of startups above.

    This article originally featured in the summer 2019 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download it here and sign up to receive the next magazine here.

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