Tech start-ups and growth companies need supporting environment

Ulster Bank's recently launched Entrepreneurial Spark Hatchery, marked here by, from left, Lynsey Cunningham, Ken Whipp and Richard Donnan, is one of a range of new start up initiatives in Northern Ireland

NORTHERN Ireland's start-up scene has been given something of a boost of late with a couple of new support initiatives.

A new start-up accelerator has been launched on Donegall Street, Belfast as part of the Invest NI funded Start-Up Planet programme, providing workspace for around 20 start-up businesses.

A new ‘hatchery' has also been created on Lombard Street by Entrepreneurial Spark, offering free space for up to 80 entrepreneurs, with hands-on mentoring, a startup ‘bootcamp', and a free programme of up to 18-months of advice, support and funding clinics.

As the managing director of a company that is based in the Northern Ireland Science Park, where there are over 100 tech companies, I know very well that there are many great indigenous businesses that are growing quickly.

I was also at the Deloitte Fast 50 event at the end of last year, and the Northern Ireland companies on the list demonstrate the quality of some of these local tech businesses. So too the NI Science Park's Invent competition.

Indeed, the statistics show that Northern Ireland has had some success when it comes to start-ups. More small firms in Northern Ireland hit the “magic milestone” of £1 million in revenues within their first three years in business than anywhere else in the UK.

Across Northern Ireland, the number of start-ups reaching £1m turnover between 2011 and 2014 ranges from 9.3 per cent in the north, to 9.7 per cent in Belfast, to 10.8 per cent in the west and south regions, according to a report from the independent research outfit, the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC).

This compares to 7.9 per cent of small businesses in London, and 6.2 per cent in England overall.

This is great. The not so good news though is that in other aspects of the start-up story, Northern Ireland isn't doing quite so well.

Our overall number of start-ups is poor, according to ERC. Our overall number of fast-growing firms is relatively small too. And when it comes to scaling from the £1m-£2m mark to over £3m, it seems Northern Ireland has a lot of work to do as well.

Taking a ‘glass is half full approach', Northern Ireland's technology sector is nascent – that is, it is really at an early stage of its development and has plenty of room for growth. The number of start-ups in the tech sector is increasing on a daily basis, and with the right support, can blossom.

But we need to see a supportive environment to help these new and growing Northern Ireland tech firms succeed.

We need to see the policy-makers continue to work on the issue of skills. Some good work has been done, but still not enough young people are choosing careers in tech. We also need to see government ensuring opportunities for SME tech businesses to secure public contracts.

As Novosco has been growing quickly in GB, we find the G-Cloud initiative that operates there a fantastic model. It is aimed at easing procurement by public-sector bodies in departments of the United Kingdom Government of commodity information technology services that use cloud computing. In effect, it enables SMEs to compete for government work.

I have found Northern Ireland a fantastic place to start and grow a business. Indeed, despite our significant growth in GB, Northern Ireland very much remains Novosco's headquarters and our home. With the right support and initiatives, Northern Ireland can see many more tech companies emerge and become significant employers. With other sectors facing decline, this is more important than ever.

:: Patrick McAliskey is managing director of Novosco, an indigenous Northern Ireland managed cloud company with offices in Belfast, Dublin and Manchester. It employs over 120 people and works for leading organisations across the UK and Ireland, including many of Northern Ireland's top companies, UK health trusts, councils and other organisations. It has been ranked one of the top companies to work for in the UK 2015 by The Sunday Times.

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