'Huge potential' for Belfast to become leader in digital sector

Pictured at Digital DNA in St George’s Market are Simon Bailie, commercial director at Digital DNA; Jamie Bartlett, director at thinktank Demos and Leo Johnson, partner and disruption lead at PwC.
Gareth McKeown

NORTHERN Ireland has 'huge potential' to attract millions of pounds of inward investment according to respected leaders within the digital sector.

Speaking at Digital DNA, held at St George's Market over the past two days, Belfast has been described as "tech central", with factors including a high level of talent, close proximity to major financial centres and competitive operating costs setting the north apart from its rivals.

Leo Johnson, partner and disruption lead at PwC, believes the technology sector in the north has vast potential.

“I've been coming here for five years and there is something hugely interesting going on, particularly at the edge of innovation. For PwC globally this (Belfast) is tech central; it's where the best and brightest love to be," he said.

“What gives me optimism about this place is you've got the DNA, you've got the universities and you've got a better than evens chance of something pretty good falling into place.”

Henry Helgeson, CEO and founder of US payments company Cayan, which has a base in Belfast, said the growing knowledge of the digital payment sector here will draw investment to Northern Ireland.

“Companies realise you have the payments talent here and that's a very valuable thing. There's a foundation of payments knowledge here that isn't available in other cities; it's not something you find in a box.”

He said Belfast holds a draw for employees within Cayan globally.

"I can't tell you how many employees I have in the US who have asked to work from Belfast," he told Digital DNA.

Meanwhile, Mike Barrett, the founder of US company Unosquare, which set up a base here last year, said a “storm” created by Brexit is on the horizon for the London digital sector which will struggle to retain talent after Brexit, leaving a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland to fill the void.

“A storm is coming to London which is going to create phenomenal wage growth opportunities in Belfast. In January I'm going to hire a person to solely focus on the London market in a senior business development role and that person will only sell our Belfast team.”

He dismissed any issue that the political situation at Stormont would have an impact on the willingness to invest.

“There are a lot of entrepreneurs out there ready to write big cheques and we're aren't bothered by your history. It's not an issue; we don't care about the past.”

Mr Barrett said that focusing on smaller areas, such as digital services for the healthcare and financial services sector, could reap significant rewards.

“Northern Ireland is not a huge population so it can never be all things to all people but it can specialise in clusters. If it's focused on digital transformation for healthcare and financial services then many companies can bring business here to Belfast," he added.

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