Commercialising our creative industries

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BELFAST is fast becoming a major hub for creative tech, and university-backed commercialisation is paving the way. But how do we tempt our top graduates to stay?

When I left Northern Ireland for university in 1996, the creative industries and creative tech innovation sectors were very small. Northern Ireland was known for producing high quality current affairs programmes, made by journalists who had cut their teeth on conflict; and for aerospace engineering and ship building.

But when I returned at the end of 2016, the picture was altogether different. Creative content in film, TV, animation and immersive technologies were all taking off in a big way. Almost five years later, we're entering a new and exciting phase of growth in these areas, with overlap into health, social care and education.

Northern Ireland was ranked 18th UK Tech Hub by a Technation 2021 report and the creative industries were named as a priority cluster in the post Covid economy document by former minister Diane Dodds.

But this phase is not without its challenges. One of the key areas the region continues to seriously under-perform in is graduate retention, and this ongoing trend throws obstacles in the path of our growing economy.

After a long career in TV and film I found myself attracted to the possibilities of creative tech, specifically VR embodiment and interventions around trauma care. Using a VR piece around mental abuse that was funded by Future Screens NI and made in collaboration with Belfast company Retinize, I decided to take a broader business idea for immersive tech through the Digispark scheme, a customer discovery process at Qubis, co founded with Techstart Grants.

This was a valuable experience that gave me a snapshot of the landscape, and also a chance to experience the university commercialisation process first hand. Qubis was ranked number one in the UK for research commercialisation in 2019 and 2020, and does cutting edge work in areas such as life sciences, drug delivery, therapeutics and health AI.

However, its work in the creative industries has been very limited and no one from film studies had ever approached them with an idea for commercialisation before. The fact that I did, tells a story about how the tech and creative sectors are collaborating in new and exciting ways. The Digispark scheme is part of a push into more varied sectors for Queen’s, and Qubis recently launched a £1.2 million investment fund.

Future Screens NI was established as part of the Creative Cluster of the City Deal. It comprises the two universites in NI and creative industry partners including NI Screen, BBC, RTE, Belfast City Council, Digital Catapult, Techstart NI and Invest NI among others.

Under the stewardship of Professor Paul Moore at Ulster University, in a short time it has left a big impression on the creative tech landscape. In addition to its open calls for Proof of Concept and Pre Commercialisation funding, it runs mentoring schemes and funding for creatives who want to cross over into the tech space, and collaborates with NI Screen on new talent initiatives.

I’m also passionate about encouraging women in the creative tech space, and am part of the Ireland wide female founders organisation Awakenhub which just announced an Ulster Bank funded initiative, and Belfast based Women in Business NI.

Much can be done to open up opportunities for women here, and the Innovate UK Women in Innovation fund is a good start. A recent report found that In 2020, just 2.4 per cent of global VC funding went to female founding teams. Similarly only 5 per cent of VC partner roles were held by women.

While feeling excited about the potential for creative tech here, I recently came across an article in the Financial Times about the “brain drain” of young graduates, which was disheartening to read.

I ran away to GB in 1996, two years before the Good Friday Agreement, and stayed away for over 20 years. But Northern Ireland has so much more potential for growth now. There is a real need for industry led educational retention schemes in our universities, and cross border initiatives, to future proof the post Brexit economy here. The way to avoid a return to pre-GFA days is educational retention - and young people starting businesses.

Lucy Baxter is a BAFTA-winning film-maker and educator