Research from Tech Nation 2018 shows that the number of digital businesses born in the region has accelerated by 143% between 2011 and 2016. A total of 97 digital tech businesses were born in the city in 2016.
Belfast now has the highest density of fibre in Europe and its low cost of living and great universities and colleges continue to attract startup tech companies to base themselves here. A year ago Ormeau Baths, a new co-working space and tech community, opened its doors in an historic former bathhouse in the heart of Belfast. The campus helps the brightest and best tech startups to access new networks, funding and expertise.
Aspiring Northern Ireland technology innovators will receive further support after InvestNI appointed Ignite 100 to run and operate Propel, its pre-accelerator programme offering workshops, tutorials, networking opportunities, mentoring, financial support and access to investment, until 2022.
So what are the strengths of Belfast’s tech scene at present and where does opportunity lie for further growth? As part of the Tech Nation report launch, the team travelled to Belfast and held an event at Ormeau Baths, where they assembled a panel of entrepreneurs, investors and local thought-leaders to explore just what it is that makes Belfast tick.
We heard from the panel how Belfast’s rich talent pool is fuelling increased digital tech success. One founder revealed that Belfast’s ‘top quality’ education system and the ‘amazing’ talent it produces was the main driver for basing their startup in the city.
Granted, as echoed across the UK, startups are battling with big corporates for local talent although our commenters were agreed that graduates are coming out of the city’s two universities armed with impressive technical skills.
‘Technical people from here will always blow others away’ argued one panellist. Yet what Belfast could do with more of, as argued by a couple of our speakers, are people with product marketing and development skills to bring technologies to market.
One area in which the panel were in unanimous agreement related to improved transport links for Belfast to further thrive as a revered tech hub.
“We need to get the right infrastructure in place which allows people to get into the centre of city as quickly as possible” remarked one panellist.
Echoing this, another described entrepreneurship as a ‘contact sport’, with key breakthroughs in innovation hinging on people literally being in the same room together crafting ideas and advancements.
Making Belfast as open and accessible as possible and reducing time taken to arrive in the city centre from the airport was high on all of the panel’s wish list.
With a digital tech sector turnover of £875 million in 2017, more and more global companies expanding to the city and golden initiatives like Ignite’s Propel pre-accelerator running in Ormeau Baths, it’s exciting to see Belfast punching above its weight in tech.
Acknowledging a need to educate and inspire the next generation of young people coming through the local education system, our panel concluded that more work is needed in showcasing opportunities in the technology sector which deviate from traditional paths.
As one founder put it, ‘Northern Irish people suit the startup lifestyle very well. People are straightforward and tell you how they think, it’s a really good trait in startup culture’.
With its natural entrepreneurial spirit and a strong startup community supporting the ecosystem, we can’t wait to see how far Belfast comes in the next five years. Watch this space.