We're back out - celebrating inspiration, ambition, ideas and innovation

Brian Morrison
Brian Morrison

ONE of the things that some people in business didn’t miss during the pandemic is events - launches, business breakfasts, awards ceremonies, staff socials etc.

Some people dread these gigs, as they usually involve making small talk with relative strangers or forcing conversation out of people who maybe aren’t the easiest to talk to. It was a considerable relief to many that these events didn’t run during Covid, it made working in business a lot easier for some.

Well, those days are gone. The start of September marked the proper return of events season and every Thursday night between now and Christmas, there will be a drinks gig, an awards ceremony, a President’s dinner, or some other excuse for business people to get out and mix.

The CBI, the IoD, the Belfast and NI Chambers and probably all of the local professional bodies, and many of the larger legal and accountancy firms will host events of one sort or another. If I am honest, I don’t mind them at all, I like catching up with people and I enjoy meeting new people with interesting business stories to tell.

There are a lot of great businesses here and we don’t hear enough about them or celebrate their success enough but the tendency to play safe and be conservative has held this economy back for too long. Some reading this may scorn the notion that hearing more about good businesses and celebrating their success is not an important part of building a more robust and healthier private sector and therefore a stronger economy, which is so needed here. I would disagree, though of course we need a good education system, the availability of capital and labour, markets to sell products and services and a supportive fiscal regime as well.

But I come back to inspiration, ambition, ideas, and innovation; these are the things which fuel start-up businesses, some of which may fail but in the start-up world, at least one failure is like a badge of honour. Entrepreneurs learn from failures and often push on to create better more robust businesses.

And so, the first major event back in the new ‘season’ was the one that really highlights the new economy here. The Invent Awards run by Catalyst (formerly the Northern Ireland Science Park) was held two Thursdays ago at the ICC, the conferencing extension to the Waterfront Hall.

It was a brilliant event, particularly because it shone a light on 10 of the newest, most exciting companies emerging here. Unlike most awards, the 500-plus attendees got to hear a pitch (a short presentation) from each of the companies and were able to vote on which of the companies should get the £50,000 top prize. Each of the companies are Catalyst companies and have benefitted in different ways from the supportive ecosystem created down on Queen’s Island, whether it be advice in the spheres of finance, marketing, product development, sales or human resources.

As I reported in an earlier column, Catalyst now has a community of 3,000 engineers, researchers and entrepreneurs creating serious value, jobs, and wealth. The return on investment for its entrepreneurship and growth programmes is £1:£45. At a cost of just under £25,000 there has been a £1.1 million impact on revenue.

The Invent Awards bring out the best of the new companies coming through Catalyst, and the stories the guests heard from the competing companies on the night were properly inspirational – from new learning tools in the education sector to bespoke jewellery design, and software to help the visually impaired enjoy live televised sport.

Interestingly (given the many worthy entries) the winner of the main prize was Vikela Armour, a company specialising in light weight, custom-fitting body armour. Peter Gileece, the young founder of the company gave a brilliant one-minute explanation of his business.

He said afterwards: “Existing body armour leaves the head, arms and legs completely exposed and is built on an outdated concept. It is also too heavy, reducing the flexibility of movement and causes the wearer to become exhausted. I wanted to address these issues, leading to the creation of Vikela Armour. Paramedics, motor cyclists, mine clearance charities, the military and many more industries can benefit from our lightweight, full coverage products.”

As with so many good ideas, it’s a simple enough concept, well delivered. He was a very impressive winner, though there were other category winners too and I have no doubt many of the companies will go forward and grow adding value to the economy here.

Meg Magill, the Invent programme manager, said: “These companies are an inspiration to us all as they strive to find innovative solutions to real world problems. Catalyst is focused on fostering inclusive innovation and developing entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland and the calibre of entries we received this year has once again highlighted the quality of talent and potential for innovation that exists here.”

That says it all, and the Invent Awards event gave the 500 attendees the opportunity to see and experience these companies and their people first hand. There is a lot to be said for that.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director and founder of MCE (