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What is the future of tech and start-ups in NI?

  • You can’t turn your head without hearing or seeing news of Covid-19 negatively impacting sectors across the country.

    Statistics already show drops in our service, food, business, and production industries.

    However, where there is darkness, there is always some form of light. For Northern Ireland particularly, that light seems to be within the tech sector and start-up scene.

    Sync NI has spoken to many business leaders and professionals throughout lockdown who believe that the pandemic has, and will continue to accelerate an even larger ‘technological revolution’ and the Tech Nation team held a virtual discussion this week to discuss NI’s part in that.

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    Hosted by Gary Davidson, Tech Nation’s Entrepreneur Engagement Manager for NI, he touched on their most recent Northern Ireland-focused report.

    It revealed that from 2015-2019, £18m was invested in emerging tech here, which includes AI, cybersecurity, robotics, IoT, blockchain, VR and AR.  

    Health tech and fintech are thriving too, with Ulster University helping boost things by adding a new fintech course to start in September. 

    Digital density of talent is high in Belfast alongside Bristol, Cambridge, and Glasgow, although digital salaries are 23% less than that of London’s.

    Belfast is considered one of the top five cities to live as a full stack developer, with average salaries hitting around £40k per annum.

    As well as our inaugural tech unicorn First Derivatives, Kainos can now too be added to that small but promising list.

    Belfast was ranked third, with Dublin fifth, in fDi intelligence’s future fintech locations for 2020/21 and this is being helped by a new fintech corridor to be opened and supported by InterTradeIreland, with access to new markets, talent, and databases.

    Gary went on to introduce a panel which consisted of Irene McAleese, Jason McKeown, Gary Robinson and Aislinn Rice.

    Irene co-founded cycling data firm See.Sense with her husband in 2013. Jason, a former doctor, founded neurological medtech Neurovalens. Gary Robinson founded software security firm Uleska, and Aislinn Rice is managing director of the data organisation, Analytics Engines.

    Host Gary Davidson noted that as a community, NI needs more access to capital and a mindset shift. He asked the panel’s insights as to what they think the biggest strength of NI’s tech ecosystem is.

    Jason noted that Belfast’s ecosystem is growing so vastly, with the likes of Catalyst Inc and Ormeau Baths to spur things along.  

    He said: “Stepping out of a stable career to the start-up profession is still scary but it is getting better and maturing more from 10 years ago.”

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    Aislinn praised NI’s “extremely well-educated workforce” and the “big contribution from universities here”.

    She added: “It’s not just about technical talent but senior leaders and entrepreneurs who have experienced high tech growth companies and brought that experience and network back.

    Irene felt that our main driver is a pool of talent, saying “there is something about Northern Irish mentality that people want to help each other succeed” which Gary Robinson concurred with, adding “everybody knows everybody!”

    He continued: “Implicitly, NI had good tech people and that encouraged FDIs, which brought lots of tech companies but not the sales or marketing parts.

    “Scaling up is talking about numbers and the more successful NI firms you see are the ones who crack sales, which is normally outside of NI.”

    It was reservedly agreed amongst the group that sometimes, Northern Ireland has a tendency to not think we are good enough and thus we lack that ‘selling’ mentality perhaps more attuned to our US counterparts.

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    Belfast's Mayor has said its tech sector will be key for the city's post-Covid recovery

    With the impact of Covid-19 next on the agenda, Irene noted that it was important for See.Sense and of course any business during the pandemic to adapt to the current needs of society and try to stay on top of what is happening and changing.

    Gary Robinson noted an acceleration for some clients and maintained a lot more online selling will be prevalent going forwards, with Covid-19 being the forefront of future planning such as with work sites and budgets.

    Jason remarked that as a medtech, Neurovalens’ clinical trial sites across Northern Ireland, California, London and India have been locked down at some point.

    He said: “Participants’ safety must be number one, especially the likes of those with high risks such as diabetes.

    “As a long-term knock on there’ll be more acceptance of remote clinical trials with e-consent forms, sending out home blood tests or health analytics, or reviewing their statuses over zoom.”

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    Regarding what investment will look like for NI start-ups in the next half a year or more, Aislinn and Gary empathised with investors that have to worry about current companies but also wish to increase their portfolios. 

    Aislinn added that “now we’ve gotten used to remote working and have evidence to show productivity, let’s broaden our net and the ability to bring in that expertise in various domains.”

    Irene acquiesced, iterating that “being on an island we’ve maybe felt in the past that we can’t get to some events, but in a way this has been a bit of a leveller in that we can access things we couldn’t before.”

    Jason believes that “within the next five to 10 years, our young ecosystem will mature potentially into Series A and Series B stages. One thing that could potentially be a positive but only time will tell – the global investment network has shrunk and people in China, San Francisco etc might do a deal over Zoom with remote working now.”

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    You can watch the entire Tech Nation: Northern Ireland Talks webinar here or on Tech Nation's YouTube channel

    Sync NI put a question to the panel; what advice would you give someone hoping to launch their own start-up post-coronavirus?

    To which Gary Robinson said that it is better to have an expert in tech and one in sales or marketing instead of just two tech experts: “It’s better to have someone there to sell product even if it isn’t completely there yet.”

    Irene, from experience, encouraged those thinking of leaving the corporate world to so do: “If you think you have an idea that’s going to resonate with people; sometimes the most successful businesses have started in some of the toughest times. If you can make it work now you’ll find yourself in a strong position. Be confident.”

    Aislinn assured that starting a company currently “is no different than any other time. Covid has happened and its presenting opportunities and a leveller that can open doors to people starting up businesses. Harness the best commercial experience you can early into your organisation and don’t be fearful of funding – people tend to think it’s one point in your journey and you get one shot. Funding is an ongoing process.”

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    She continued: “Get those conversations started. Investors have a significant degree of empathy for firms right now. Tech is the road to recovery and lead into all expertise around you.

    “We need to get better at getting on the phone and asking for help. You’ll find within a few phone calls that someone has done it and has good advice. Don’t underestimate your network, your peers, your colleagues.”

    Jason concluded by saying that “the landscape has changed and the dust has yet to settle. If you have a great solid idea and you can execute it, it shouldn’t matter - Covid or not. If someone had an opportunity to pursue something but didn’t do it because of Covid, that’s not right.”

    One thing the panel all whole-heartedly agreed on, is Northern Ireland’s high quality of talent, resilience and hard work.

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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