Belfast event seeks to strengthen links between north-south tech founders

A key figure in Ignite NI, Ian Browne is now managing direector of the NDRC in Dublin, the Republic’s government-backed national start-up accelerator programme. Picture by Flavia Bianchi
A key figure in Ignite NI, Ian Browne is now managing direector of the NDRC in Dublin, the Republic’s government-backed national start-up accelerator programme. Picture by Flavia Bianchi

A NEW initiative will take place in Belfast this week, aimed at creating stronger links between the tech communities of Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Dublin-based Dogpatch Labs will bring its First Fridays event north of the border for the first time.

Geared at promoting start-ups, the event includes talks from successful entrepreneurs and will connect northern founders with more than one thousand mentors from global tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Hubspot and Salesforce.

Friday's event will feature input from professor of experimental psychology and chief executive of INCISIV, Cathy Craig, as well as Dr Chris Armstrong, chief executive of Overwatch Research.

Dogpatch Labs, which runs the NDRC, the Republic’s government-backed national start-up accelerator programme, is now headed by Belfast native Ian Browne.

Mr Browne is the former chief commercial officer of Ignite NI, which ran a number of accelerator programmes to support growing tech start-ups in the north.

But uncertainty over Invest NI’s budget resulted in key funding being pulled in February.

A well-known figure in Belfast’s Ormeau Baths’ tech hub, Ian Browne was named managing director of the NDRC in May.

He will return to Ormeau Avenue on Friday with the hope of fastening links between the tech community of Belfast, with an eye on extending the events into Derry and Donegal.

Originally staged in Dublin, First Fridays events have now taken place in Galway, Kerry, Cork and Skibbereen.

“Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland are both small ecosystems, but they kind of exist in isolation,” said Mr Browne.

“This is an attempt to join north and south a little bit better.

“Both are emerging ecosystems, they’re not up there with big urban tech centres, but both have been doing relatively well recently.

“Northern Ireland is a bit further behind than the Republic, but that’s a function of both size and capital.”

The Belfast native said the momentum within the north’s tech sector has somewhat stalled due to the lack of an executive at Stormont and the withdrawal of support for key programmes.

“The uncertainty leaves it very difficult to attract people in and we can lose talent,” he said.

“I’m seeing signs of that already and that’s definitely going to be a big problem.

“Without that momentum driving it forward, we’re going to enter a period of stasis.”

READ: Invest NI confirms it can no longer fund hugely successful business start-up programmes

Reflecting on the loss of government funding for Ignite NI, Ian Browne said he remains “incredibly frustrated” and said the consequences will become apparent over the next year.

“It’s so short-sighted. I’m frustrated more than anything else, because there has been this growing and building of stuff over the last three or four years, and it’s got to a pretty decent place.

“We were getting a very good reputation outside Northern Ireland, so I’m very frustrated, because we had an opportunity to double down and make it better.

“We’ve got to think about what’s going to drive the future of the economy in Northern Ireland. Most of the future economic growth will be driven by a very small percentage of companies, and that tends to be high growth companies.

“If we can’t create indigenous high growth companies, then we become reliant on foreign direct investment for sustaining growth and that’s not a particularly healthy place to be in the long-term.”

Mr Browne said the First Fridays initiative is not just about connecting the north into a network in the Republic, but will help connect founders from across the border to connect with the UK market.

“This is a two-way flow of information, skills and talent. And the event on Friday is really the first step in this.”

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