City analysis: The sky’s the limit for Belfast’s talented tech cluster

Jamie Hardesty, July 27, 2018 3 min read

A capital still often unfairly branded with its tumultuous recent history, Belfast is now emerging as a shining tech cluster to behold.

We were lucky enough to be welcomed by Ormeau Baths, the vibrant coworking space at the heart of the city’s tech community, to host the latest leg of Tech Nation on Tour.

Opened in only July last year, the exciting venue today stands as a beacon for aspiring startups to access the vital networks, funding and expertise they need to grow.

A talent pool to envy

So what are the strengths of Belfast’s tech scene at present and where does opportunity lie for further growth? We 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.

Oliver Lennon, CEO and Founder of Syndeo, said: 

“Technically we are brilliant but we don’t have enough of the skills to get our technology out to market. Silicon Valley is brilliant at product marketing and management. We need to attract more skills and people but focus on the right skills, some can be the nontechnical.”

Funding isn’t always the path to take

According to the Tech Nation Report, new digital tech businesses in the Northern Irish capital grew by 143% between 2011 and 2016. With the city’s startup community swelling, our panel provided much sage advice for emerging entrepreneurs – especially in relation to funding.

After bootstrapping for a couple of years, one founder commented that ‘the fuel of funding can really help’. Yet the panel agreed in the necessity of a deeply considered and responsible approach to venture funding and investment.

Jon Bradford, Co-founder of Ormeau Baths, said:

“Only a very small proportion of startups needs venture funding. Everybody turns up and assumes it’s for them and there’s even a sense of entitlement. The reality is that venture funding can destroy businesses. Most startups here [Ormeau Baths] are getting on trying to find customers.”

Transport improvements key to unlocking further growth

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.

Changing mindsets

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.

Community, Data & research, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tech Nation Report 2018, Tech Nation Tour