Belfast Telegraph

25k Awards put high tech experts put in spotlight

BY JOHN SIMPSON

Some of the brightest young business scientists emerging from the local universities are under the microscope this week, as they take part in the (modestly titled) 25k Awards. Ten innovative high-tech teams have been shortlisted for recognition and possibly winning the prestigious professional award.

The title ‘25k Award’ understates the significance of this annual review of the best early stage businesses that have links with, or are based in, the Science Park. They are organised by a special unit in the Science Park: NISP CONNECT.

The 10 finalists have each demonstrated their competence to the judges and their ambitions have been distilled into a business plan followed by a testing review of the products and services, the technology, the business viability and their management skills. Then, on Thursday evening, an overall winner will be revealed.

The finalists are a diverse group ranging from a bio-project that has developed a hydrogel drug delivery product to apply to wounds, to a hi-tech application for an accessory which helps motorcyclists see further at night. Each entry is classified as either bio-tech, clean-tech, hi-tech or digital media and software.

Whilst the overall winner will gain merited kudos, the strength of this competition lies in the range and depth of the scientific and technical expertise that is on display.

Steve Orr, director of NISP CONNECT, believes that they show that Northern Ireland has the capacity to become one of the leading knowledge economies in Europe by 2030. He predicts that we will see real businesses and jobs emerge in the future and for the long-term.

The awards demonstrate convincingly that there are many ambitious technically competent boffins willing to test themselves in the market place where ideas and skills are tested commercially. One of the by-products of these awards is that, in parallel, questions should be asked about the degree and form of business development support that should be available alongside these high tech projects.

The finalists in this year’s assessment are individually impressive. The significance of these awards lies not just in an impressive group of projects in 2013 but is also re-enforced by the knowledge that this year is yet another of an impressive annual series of awards. Entrepreneurial ambition at a high level in a knowledge economy is not a scarce product.

Each year Northern Ireland produces large numbers of advanced graduates. Only a small proportion will want to build their own business. Many others will apply their talents in existing organisations.

However, it will only need a relatively small number of business-orientated boffins to make a large difference in building a more successful local economy.

NISP CONNECT has identified the evolving and continuing stream of budding scientific entrepreneurs. It has also helped to give them encouragement by identifying successful role models from existing businesses.

This year, NISP CONNECT introduced Dr Peter Fitzgerald from Randox Laboratories to the 10 finalists. His career development from research student to product developer and, now, to international business manager is an outstanding example of success that would not easily have been assured even 20 years ago. Peter Fitzgerald has been awarded the honour of being the 2013 innovation founder of the year.

If further reassurance is needed, then the roll-call of innovation founders in recent years makes impressive reading. Last year the award went to Tom Eakin, leading development at Eakin Holdings and, in 2011, the honour fell to Hugh Cormican, the entrepreneur who drove the early stages of Andor Technologies.

The annual review produced by NISP CONNECT is strong evidence that Northern Ireland has a vibrant and growing group of high tech specialists in the knowledge economy. There remains an unfinished challenge of using these building blocks to create a dynamic and profitable expanding private sector.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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