Belfast Draws on Carrots and Culture to Attract Tech Firms

The Northern Ireland capital is offering packages and a buzzing city to pull in investment

“And you can add to anyone thinking of basing here that they should consider my parlour as their base of operations until they are started… I will personally make sure they get everything they need in order to make the investment successful for them and for Belfast.”

It’s not a bad offer from Máirtín O Muilleoir, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, but then the capital of Northern Ireland is doing everything it can to attract startups, many of them in technology or in sectors with a strong technology component. Always an attractive city with a lively nightlife and many cultural attractions, 20 years after the ceasefire that ended the worst of the bloody divisions with the UK government, Belfast is trying to build another reputation: that of a great place to work and live for people with the talent and ambition to build local and global businesses.

“We are the most cost-competitive city in Western Europe but we don't want low-paid jobs or companies locating here as part of a race to the bottom,” says O Muilleoir when we speak by phone.

“We compete on talent not tax. We do of course offer useful grant aid to companies based on jobs created, but our real strength is in helping with training, location, partnerships... For example, Deloitte has just placed a major data analytics operation here. We put them together with the Belfast Metropolitan College to create a training course focused exactly on their needs. The best ambassadors for Belfast are those who have already invested here.” 

Belfast is a city of about 280,000 people and claims to have the fastest-growing knowledge economy in Europe. It benefits from leading local academic institutions like Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, helping to build a platform for technology innovation and entrepreneurship.

It also helps that the city already benefits from locally located companies like Intel, Citi, customer engagement consultants Concentrix, online payment processing firm CyberSource and Liberty Mutual Insurance.

“We’re a hub for some of the best blue-chip American companies, many of them in tech, so you have this base of young talented people…. any city would give its right arm for that,” says O Muilleoir.

“You see people who are working at big companies thinking about how they can take their expertise and go on their own.”

Indeed, the latest demographics suggest that about 44% of people in Belfast are under 30 and the city has other advantages. It also provides a perfectly placed time zone and good transport logistics for international companies serving the largest markets, says O Muilleoir.

“If you have international operations it’s not bad to be five hours from both New York and India. Plus we speak English and we’re stable. That’s bringing more young people from all over the world here.”

O Muilleoir says that Belfast’s appeal is two-fold.

“Large companies used to locating businesses all over the world are interested in the macro picture: stability, competiveness and access to talent. Younger companies like the buzz and the fertile soil for ideas.”

Of course, for people of a certain age and from some parts of the world Belfast will still be recalled as the city of ‘The Troubles’, the name given to the dark period of conflict within Northern Ireland and spilling out into Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and occasionally elsewhere. But that image is fading and for many younger people, will already appear to be a historic relic. Twenty years into the peace process and since the ceasefire, it might be “still on the radar” for some, O Muilleoir concedes, but it’s no longer the elephant on the table.

Local entrepreneur and investor Stephen Houston is another who wants Belfast and Northern Ireland to look to the future and opportunities stemming from technology.

“Northern Ireland has fewer than two million people but we’re following Tech City [in London], Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley, bringing together people who have never [built businesses before] before and attracting angel investors and equity.”

He points to the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter waterfront regeneration project and the Invest Northern Ireland programme that helps companies commence operations, grow or relocate to the area.

“We’re supporting startups not just with money but with business connections too so they can sit down with people on payroll, tax, accounting and so on and benefit from structured mentoring.”

Houston argues that in this way, young entrepreneurs will learn lessons in odd, interesting ways. “It’s sometimes more valuable to find out what not to do rather than what to do,” he says, and he is excited about the change in the air.

“Our big advantage is the island mentality. For 15 to 20 years now we’ve had a generation of younger people that realise we’ve been missing a beat. With most of the jobs today for [today’s] generation it’s as doable to get to America or Australia as London if they’re leaving the island.”

Both men agree that the “Brand Ireland” association with the neighbouring Republic of Ireland is also a positive.

“We’re an island of 6.6 million but a family of 70 million [globally] and diaspora is something very real for us,” says Houston. “A lot of people [whose families came from Ireland] have a sense of wanting to give back and wanting to help.”

And even if Belfast can’t compete with London across the Irish Sea in terms of scale, that might not be entirely negative.

“London is a global capital on a par with New York and one of the five greatest capital cities on Earth but on the other hand it’s impossible to get any accommodation; it’s very overheated and difficult to afford,” says O Muilleoir.

“If I was a young person I’d really want somewhere where you could get a nice place to live, so our pitch is different. Northern Ireland has a colourful history, it’s well known, but struggles make you stronger. Together we have a wealth of creativity and we can now showcase what we can do.”

The modern Belfast is the city that hosted the G8 in 2013, was the UK City of Culture and helped to produce entertainers like Snow Patrol and sporting stars including several of the world’s best golfers.

Houston concurs, saying that technology and globalisation mean location and local competition on bragging rights are less important than previously.

“We had a bad track record of saying ‘no, we’d prefer to see you fail’ but now we need to encourage people to know that it’s OK to fail and to understand that if you’re going to fail, fail quickly. We need to focus less on London and look more to the United States and San Francisco. Ten years ago people in Northern Ireland would automatically go to London, Birmingham or Manchester for work but that’s changed.”

Houston would love to see more “halo brands” emerge and for Northern Ireland to have its own Steve Jobs but points to a healthy crop of startups. These include product shopping search company Sophia, which was born of collaboration between the universities of Ulster and St Petersburg State. At the other end of the scale is Cargo’s Brewbot, a company that has developed a smartphone-controlled appliance for making beer.

But Houston also notes that several exits have already been made, including Belfast scientific camera maker Andor Technology, a Queen’s University spinout that recently agreed to be acquired by Oxford Instruments for £176m and Meridio Holdings which was bought by Autonomy in 2007 for about $41m. Then there are the indigenous companies with strong technological components like Country Antrim’s Randox Laboratories, which provides diagnostic testing kits, Ballymena’s maker of London’s famous buses Wrightbus, Newry-headquartered trading systems developer First Derivatives and Cirdan Imaging which provides cancer screening technology and Norbrook,  a Newry-based pharmaceuticals firm. And then there are the foreign companies that have elected to site themselves in Northern Ireland including aviation engineering firm Bombardier and pharma firm Warner Chilcott, recently acquired but retaining strong intellectual property roots that were sown in Larne, County Antrim and continue to grow.

“The real narrative emerging in Northern Ireland is that we are really good technically, we have the ‘nerd gene’; we are really good at solving complex problems,” Houston says.

“Our situation is very similar to that of Israel in the mid-Eighties: great technically but how do we develop the commercial competence to monetise our technical capability? Foreign companies recognise our technical competence and are piling in either through FDI (foreign direct investment) or acquisition. Our indigenous companies are now becoming significant and all of this is spilling over into a very vibrant yet still nascent startup scene.”

John Ferguson agrees. His startup, Venuebooker, is intended as “an AirBnB for the events and functions space” and his patter is as slick as any Silicon Valley native’s elevator pitch, albeit delivered with an Ulsterman’s brogue.

“Hospitality has been relatively untouched by the internet and the funny thing is that it’s almost the most socially engaged part of the business world,” he says. “This is a more cost-effective way to get bums on seats. You might want Christmas dinner in a castle or a football stadium – we can make it happen. It takes booking events from being a 10-step process to a two-step process. Before, you’d ring 20 venues but we can take a huge part out – it’s about streamlining and making better use of time and knowledge.”

Ferguson, another Belfast native works from the Cathedral Quarter that is sometimes known as Silicon Alleyway, such is its concentration of internet, tech and media firms. He is a proud enthusiast for the city and sees it as being able to benefit from its proximity to London.

“London is our next-door neighbour that we share a time zone with, and we’re very well connected to the UK,” he enthuses. “London is a huge city and Belfast is very small but the nature of how products are now taken to market, through iterative alpha and beta cycles, means we can be a testing ground.”

Ferguson paints an illuminating picture of the various incentives available, including the Invest Northern Ireland Propel Programme and NISP Connect network.

“If you’re an early-stage company, Belfast and Northern Ireland have one of the best funding packages. It has Irish hospitality and it’s very different to anywhere else in the world. To do this in San Francisco would cost four times more or twice as much in London but Belfast makes perfect financial sense and it’s full of arts, full of culture, has a fantastic nightlife, is very arty, cool, modern but very unique. It’s a beautiful mix to have internet and technology with the music industry and we’re slowly become a superpower in film making and the digital media industry.” Like Houston, he concedes that having a tech company with a household name known around the world would boost the area, but notes that London doesn’t have that either. Instead, he says, it’s more important to build a platform and plant the seeds for job creation.

“Venuebooker has been far from plain sailing,” he says. “Opening a business on this scale is as challenging as you can get. I’ve had challenging jobs in the past but this has pushed me way beyond my comfort zone. You’re not just learning something but learning it very fast and implementing as you go along.”

He points to companies around him, often in a Venn diagram where fashion, media, tech, design and the internet meet, including Beacon, a startup that lets publishers create and sell digital magazines through a drag-and-drop user interface  and the DiscoverEverAfter online burial discovery site.

Ferguson says that he is hugely optimistic about Belfast and says that the excitement can be found across the city as parties set aside old differences and work together.

“For the first time in my life there’s a real common ambition here,” he says. “There’s a huge hunger to look at the future and not the past.”


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect