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Invest NI's massive £107m handout to universities and NI Screen

By Margaret Canning and Lindsay Fergus

Published 03/12/2015

Invest NI’s headquarters in Belfast
Invest NI’s headquarters in Belfast

One-third of Invest NI funding for local enterprise goes to Northern Ireland's two universities and film industry body NI Screen, research has shown.

NI Screen, together with Ulster University and Queen's University - which also receive millions of pounds annually from the Department for Employment & Learning - were offered a total of £107m from Invest NI out of £323m between April 2011 and September 2014, the period covered in the research by online journalism service Detail Data.

The findings - which were obtained through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests - also showed that 2,792 other firms based in Northern Ireland shared £216m of funding.

Invest NI said that information on another £28m of offers could not be disclosed due to FoI exemptions, including data protection and commercial sensitivity.

Invest NI funding is mainly available to companies making products or providing services which can be exported.

Invest NI defended its record and said: "We principally support those businesses that can make the greatest contribution to growing our economy."

But TUV MLA Jim Allister said that sums being put into the universities by Invest NI could be "disproportionate".

"With a third of Invest's funding going to the universities and NI Screen, it seems to me Invest NI has a disproportionate focus.

"Of course, it is important to support our universities in research and development, but the extent to which this is squeezing out deserving indigenous industry is unfair."

NI Screen told Detail Data it did not want to comment on its funding from Invest NI. However, it has used the financial support to attract productions like HBO's Game Of Thrones and Universal Pictures' Dracula Untold to Northern Ireland.

A spokeswoman for Invest NI said only a "nominal" amount of its funding to Northern Ireland Screen was used for that organisation's operational purposes.

Instead, the sums amounted to funding for creative businesses, which was funnelled through NI Screen, which comes under the control of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).

And funding which was provided to universities was for those entities to provide to companies who were seeking assistance with research and development, she added.

Most companies wished to partner with universities for research and development to avail of universities' expertise, the spokeswoman said.

In its last six-monthly update in May this year, Invest NI said that over the tax year 2014 to 2015, it had made 5,000 offers of support to both homegrown businesses and foreign firms that were setting up here.

And 93% of those offers - 4,650 - had been made to indigenous firms, Invest NI said.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the NI Chamber of Commerce, said it had a "positive working relationship" with Invest NI.

"In terms of the university support, while they are based in urban areas, they target students and benefit businesses from across the region," she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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