Inward investment, a healthy and growing start-up culture, highly skilled talent and two universities feeding into a collaborative tech ecosystem – in Northern Ireland we are punching above our weight.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
Northern Ireland has been experiencing a renaissance in the last dozen years – especially our burgeoning tech centre. As a region we have drawn serious inward investment from the likes of global tech and management company PA Consulting, Deloitte and IBM, and PwC chose Belfast as the prime location for its blockchain department. It’s not only global multi-nationals that are attracted to Northern Ireland, other recent investors include trailblazers such as US-based web security specialists, WhiteHat and Imperva and security software service provider, Proofpoint.
But inward investment is only part of Northern Ireland’s success story. Our entrepreneurial scene is very healthy. For budding entrepreneurs we offer favourable odds – start-ups do particularly well, especially in contrast with GB. Thirteen Northern Irish companies made it into Deloitte Ireland’s Tech Fast 50, which measures revenue growth. Just last year, the Financial Times’ fDi Intelligence again named Belfast the world’s most business-friendly small-medium sized city. The publication also placed Belfast in the world’s top 10 Digital Economies of the Future - the only UK city outside London to be listed.
In the last few years, Northern Ireland has demonstrated leadership in some of the world’s most important and cutting edge industries. This might come as a surprise to some, considering the size of our region, but our small stature has a long shadow. Underpinning this success is our high calibre home-grown talent, a supportive ecosystem where industry, academia and the public sector work together, and of course, the celebrated quality of life we have to offer. All perfect ingredients for an innovative landscape.
Disruptive technologies, innovation and technological breakthroughs are flourishing in Northern Ireland, which always has its eyes on the future. Cyber security in particular is becoming one of the world’s fastest growing sectors. As the first organisations are prosecuted for GDPR violations and the average cyber-attack cost ranked at $2.4 million (according to Accenture), the financial implications of vulnerable organisations are huge.
In Northern Ireland, we nurture the cyber security industry by steadily building our knowledge base, attracting talent and growing our innovation capabilities. As previously mentioned, PwC chose Belfast for its blockchain headquarters back in 2016 – a huge show of confidence in the city. This growing team of specialists offers expert advice to companies globally on security concerns, all based in Northern Ireland.
It’s not just the private sector: organisations involved in cyber security are supported by research centres, in particular the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), which is part of Queen’s University Belfast. Over a decade ago, it was chosen to be one of only seven UK Innovation and Knowledge Centres, which enables commercialisation of emergent technologies through world-class research, new value and venture creation.
CSIT’s unique environment is the lynchpin for researchers, engineers, academic as well as industry and government to accelerate the results of cyber security through research to commercial application. This supportive ecosystem is the reason behind Northern Ireland’s growing expertise.
The most important part of any tech hub is talent. As any recruiter knows, attracting highly skilled talent – and keeping it – can be the hardest aspect of running an organisation, making this a key focus for global firms looking for new locations. The value of our skilled workforce in attracting inward investment can’t be underestimated – it’s been highlighted as the key reason investors turn their gaze to Northern Ireland. Ulster University and Queen’s University in Belfast work closely with companies to furnish their students with sought-after skills. Investors also benefit from unique skills programmes designed in collaboration with government, industry and academia ensure each investor’s workforce is successfully equipped with the appropriate skills now and in the future.
And Northern Ireland is attractive to the workforce, too. With lower rents than London, and a better work-life balance, the region’s population – one of the youngest in Europe – doesn’t want to leave the area where ambitious organisations are creating exciting, high-value jobs. The rapid growth in opportunities, good schools and renowned quality of life are also proving a draw to people who want to move back or into the region.
Part of our role at Invest Northern Ireland is to bring investment into the region - we want our population to benefit from, as well as contribute to, the industries that shape the world. Tech is huge part of employment already: currently one in 11 people in Northern Ireland is employed in the knowledge economy. Belfast has not only become the leading destination for US cybersecurity development projects, it is said that it has one of the highest concentrations of cyber security jobs in Europe.
Finally, Northern Ireland benefits from a modern and fit-for-purpose infrastructure – digitally and logistically. It was the first European region to have 100% broadband and Belfast is also set to be one of six cities in the UK where 5G will be rolled out first. What’s more, London is only an hour away by air and there are daily direct flights to Europe’s leading business locations such as Paris and Amsterdam.
There are financial incentives for investing in Northern Ireland as well. Through Invest NI, businesses can access a range of services to help set-up, innovate and grow. We can provide access to specialist knowledge, such as academic and research organisations, as well as initial financial and recruitment support. You can find out more on our website.
Ultimately, all of these are contributing towards Northern Ireland becoming a technology hub of global importance. By offering a supportive landscape where businesses, the public sector and academia work together to innovate and nurture talent, our region is shaping one of the most critical industries of today and tomorrow. Our ambition is huge, and we look forward to welcoming even more of the world’s brightest firms to our shores.
Steve Harper is the Executive Director of International at Invest Northern Ireland