Tech Nation Talks Northern Ireland: a global mindset with ambition to scale

Kane Fulton, July 13, 2020 5 min read

Tech Nation Talks headed to Northern Ireland for the penultimate date on our virtual UK tour. As with the previous eight events, it was broadcast over the Hopin video conferencing platform, which has enabled us to run engaging live events designed to connect and inform digital tech ecosystem workers across the UK.

Timing is often critical to a digital tech company’s success, and this week it was announced that Hopin raised $40m in a Series A investment round led by IVP; a move that provided a welcome lift for UK tech amid the pandemic-induced uncertainty.

Also aiming to lift spirits was Mike Jackson, Tech Nation’s Director of Entrepreneur Success, who welcomed delegates from Northern Ireland and beyond before providing an overview of the UK’s recent tech performance.

According to Tech Nation Report 2020, digital tech companies in Northern Ireland raised £100m of investment from VCs in 2019. A total of £18m was invested in emerging tech between 2015 and 2019, of which £3m was invested in AI companies. Northern Ireland is home to one digital tech ‘unicorn’, First Derivatives.

Before we proceed, we would like to thank our partners Openreach and Barclays for supporting our Tech Nation Talks events. Both are pivotal in supporting digital businesses through the provision of valuable infrastructure, and in championing the UK tech sector.

Strong startup support

It was then time for our panel, which was hosted by Gary Davidson, our Entrepreneur Engagement Manager for Northern Ireland. Gary began by asking our four panellists what they perceived to be the biggest strength of the country’s tech ecosystem.

Jason McKeown, cofounder and CEO at Neurovalens, praised the country for the support it provides at the startup level from organisations such as Catalyst and the Ormeau Baths coworking hub.

Aislinn Rice, Managing Director at data analytics solutions provider Analytics Engines – which we recently highlighted in a round-up of innovative UK-based AI companies – hailed the availability of skilled workers and the contribution made by Northern Ireland’s universities. She said that the country’s legacy international companies – such as Nortel, which came to the country in 1990 – have helped its business ecosystem mature.

Aislinn also had praise for Northern Ireland’s entrepreneurs and senior leaders who have travelled abroad to gain experience in high-growth digital tech companies before returning to impart their newly acquired knowledge.

“Culturally, we’re an incredibly resilient bunch with a very powerful work ethic,” she said. “I think that genuine passion and ambition to be successful, which fuels the hard work that you need in a startup, is evident here. The challenge is scaling out those businesses.”

Results of a poll conducted with our event attendees

Best kept secret

Northern Ireland’s rich talent pool is one of its best-kept secrets. That’s according to Irene McAleese, cofounder at cycling technology and data company See.Sense.

Irene praised the collaborative mentality of startup founders there, who she said are more likely to reach out and offer support to one another compared to those in other ecosystems – such as London – where they were previously based.

“I think there’s something about the Northern Irish mentality that people want to help each other succeed,” she said. “There’s recognition that we have to get tech businesses thriving for its economy to succeed – and that provides a lot of hope and stimulation for people.”

Northern Ireland has an impressive track record in attracting Foreign Direct Investment (or FDI), with Belfast being Europe’s leading FDI destination for new software development. While this has had a positive impact on the startup ecosystem, its impact has been felt less by scaling companies, said security software company Uleska founder and CEO Gary Robinson.

“When you’re talking about scaling, you’re really talking about sales and marketing to grow the numbers,” he said. “The more successful Northern Irish companies that we’ve seen have cracked that challenge. As more companies scale, raising their Series A and B rounds, there’s going to be a lot more opportunity to bring everybody up and float all boats.”

Spotting an opportunity

How has Covid-19 impacted companies in Northern Ireland? Belfast-based See.Sense sells bike lights that flash brighter and faster when cyclists are in precarious situations, and the company works with cities to use the crowdsourced sensor data they collect to inform the design of better cycling infrastructure. With cyclists disappearing from the roads overnight at the start of lockdown, the company placed its data collection projects on hold and planned out various future scenarios.

As it turns out, cycling has boomed in popularity and the trend has continued in the face of fewer people taking public transport. The company realised that cities needed to respond by building emergency active travel infrastructure, yet in some cases they had little data to inform planning decisions, as well as decreased time to follow normal community consultation processes.

In response, the company worked quickly to adapt their existing app to open it up for free to all cyclists, not just their customers. It allows cyclists to make reports on where bike lanes, or other improvements, are needed to improve conditions. The company is now working with city planners to use the insights generated by these reports, alongside their existing sensor data, to help design cycling infrastructure.

“We now have to make sure that our value proposition is aligned with new people that cycle, who may not have ridden for 10 years,” Irene said. “Their needs are different from our previous customers’, so how we adapt to that going forward is critical.”

Uleska’s Gary is repositioning his company to meet the needs of large enterprise clients who will be factoring the implications of Covid-19 when setting their budgets for the next few years. For example, the pandemic is driving a need for ‘Zero Trust’ – a security model that maintains strict access controls – due to a dramatic increase in remote working.

“These are all things that we need to see come through in the buying cycle,” Gary said. “It’s going to be really interesting and this time next year we’ll be talking about some of those effects.”

Managing disruption

Based in Belfast, Neurovalens develops non-invasive medical technology in sites around the world. The company has had to pause its clinical trials – including one looking Type 2 Diabetes – during the pandemic. “Ultimately, you have to put patient safety at number one,” said cofounder and CEO Jason McKeown.

The company has managed to make progress by posting equipment that enables patients to complete their ongoing clinical trials. This balances patients’ need to complete the trial with the company’s data requirements, and more broadly Jason said that it could increase acceptance of remote clinical trials.

Analytics Engines, meanwhile, works with customers across finance; culture; education; healthcare; agri-food and the public sector. It has been busy during lockdown supporting its customer Innovate UK, which led the UK Government’s ‘Business-led innovation in response to global disruption’ competition.

The organisation received more than 8,500 applications – a number it would typically receive over a year – and used Analytics Engine’s Grant Manager solution to correctly assess them.

The company is now focusing on productising its IP and bringing a new analytics platform ‘Minerva’ to market which enables deep data interrogation using knowledge graphs and AI for enhanced due diligence and fraud investigations.

Aislinn said Northern Ireland has a great depth of talent but urged entrepreneurs to get “the right DNA in the company that’s both technical and commercial”.

Northern Ireland has a digital tech ecosystem that’s been globally enriched in more ways than one. It knows its strengths and what is required to help its businesses scale. Through a focus on innovating, collaborating and determining what is needed to thrive in the so-called “new normal”, the country’s digital tech entrepreneurs are well-positioned to turn their passion into profit.

Community, Northern Ireland