Scotland and Northern Ireland have much in common, including a strong industrial heritage which has led to inventions ranging from the electric tram to the pneumatic tyre to the modern tractor. Since the region’s well documented troubles have subsided, Belfast has given rise to a new breed of entrepreneurial talent and a burgeoning tech community.
According to recent figures, Queen’s University, Belfast is 1st in the UK for IP revenue and the UK’s top research-intensive University for revenue from research commercialisation. There is a new generation of entrepreneurs setting out to solve the future problems of the next industrial age and many of them are spinning out or starting up new companies. A number of co-working hubs have sprung up around the city – including Ormeau Baths; a co-working space and tech community based out of an historic former bath house in the heart of Belfast, funded by entrepreneurs Jon Bradford, Mark Dowds, Aaron Taylor and Steve Pette, with support from tech leaders from Northern Ireland’s digital diaspora, including Scotland’s FanDuel founder Nigel Eccles.
Lured by attractive incentives (Northern Ireland’s current rate of corporation tax is 19%, soon to reduce to 17%, making it the second lowest in Western Europe) overseas companies with an interest in gaming, sports tech, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity are also establishing bases within the city to access talent. Local developer salaries have already increased by an astounding 50% in the past three years, although operating costs still remain 20-40% less than other parts of the UK and Europe.
It’s been several years since I last visited the city so the opportunity to attend last week’s Digital DNA to hear from Belfast’s growing tech scene was too good an opportunity to miss.
Eden Scott has had an office in Belfast for almost four years and we’ve often discussed how TalentSpark might be able to better support the city’s burgeoning startup scene. The community is thriving and establishing itself as a future powerhouse as investors begin to take interest in the businesses being created. The figures speak for themselves – one speaker, Giancarlo Di Vece cited an increase of 28% in the number of startups being born in Belfast since 2016.
Held in the iconic St. George’s market Digital DNA is a bit of a ‘catch all’ tech event – part expo, part tech conference with a side order of startup pitching – which brings together blue-chip organisations, SMEs and startups to share their knowledge and ideas. Over the two days attendees had an opportunity to hear from 150 speakers across four stages, covering topics including marketing, data, innovation and product development. From a TalentSpark perspective, the companies taking part in the upstart pitching competition with the opportunity to win an all-expenses paid trip to explore the New York tech scene for the winning Northern Irish startup, held the most interest.
Amidst the array of new business ideas were a several alternative solutions to problems that I’ve heard Scottish counterparts articulate. A few new ideas presented an interesting perspective on problems that I hadn’t previously considered.
I was struck by the fact that only a few of companies pitching had an ‘impact’ agenda. The move towards more purpose-driven and tech for good organisations is something that we have seen become progressively more prevalent in Scotland – and it’s something that investors have increasingly shown appetite for. Since 2013 Green Angel Syndicate has supported companies addressing the green economy, but the recent launch of SIS Ventures in Scotland has widened the funding opportunities for impactful enterprises with a social mission.
Additionally, plans are in advanced stages for the launch of Scottish stock exchange later this year. ”Helping us build a more sustainable and inclusive tomorrow”, the Edinburgh based exchange will be the first regulated investment exchange to be focused on businesses that are making measurable positive social and environmental impact.
It may be no coincidence then that the eventual winner of the pitching competition was ESTHER, a pocket to pocket giving app which allows users to make a charitable donation to the poorest people in their own city. I loved the concept.
It’s difficult to get a real feel for a city’s aspirations in just a couple of days at a conference, but whilst Belfast’s tech community is visibly vibrant, it also struck me as being somewhat inward looking. As with startups everywhere, the innovative young businesses that I spoke to were on the hunt for funding, but none were aware of events outside of Ireland such as Engage Invest Exploit, which affords startups the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a business and investor audience. Companies that have gone through EIE in the past decade have raised in excess of £650M. It would be great to see more companies from Northern Ireland applying to take part when #EIE20 opens for applications in October.
We are often told how lucky we are in Scotland to have such a lively and active angel community; I think it’s very easy for us to take this for granted. If you have a great idea and a strong founding team, it is relatively easy for Scottish companies to find that first trench of money. The companies that I spoke to in Belfast all spoke about attracting VC money. Is this because they are more aggressive in their ambitions? I don’t think so and certainly the maturity of the business taking part in the pitching competition wouldn’t suggest so. I can only conclude that lack of angel money necessitates a VC focus – but if anyone can offer any insight, I’d be delighted to hear it!
Last year Belfast based Techstart Ventures, a seed investment partner, opened a Scottish office and has already added a number of Scottish companies to its portfolio. One of its portfolio, Pitchbooking has also set up a second location in Edinburgh to help attract developer talent.
Two Celtic countries so closely located and sharing so many cultural similarities would surely benefit from closer collaboration, wouldn’t you agree?