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Leading the way to a future of opportunities

By Symon Ross

With bank financing still in short supply and an increasing number of our brightest entrepreneurs facing a struggle to get their businesses off the ground, Invest Northern Ireland has launched a new programme to help cultivate fledgling knowledge intensive enterprises

With Northern Ireland universities reporting a sharp increase in the number of provisional applications this year, it appears that the global recession is affecting local confidence.

According to Employment and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey, around 7% more students have provisionally applied for university places.

That suggests that those who might have entered the labour market straight away believe that the time may not be right and that the employment landscape may be better in three or four years.

The trend begs the question whether Northern Ireland can offer enough opportunity for local bright sparks, whether at school and university level or beyond.

In the past the province has suffered from the brain drain as would-be business owners have been forced to look to further afield for the support or financing needed to make their ideas a reality.

But amongst the recent jobs gloom which has descended on Northern Ireland, there is some positive evidence to suggest that the province is now well placed to generate employment from within the dynamic knowledge sector.

The development of innovation hubs, such as the Northern Ireland Science Park, evidences this focus and the wealth of opportunities it presents for local talent.

If we are to become a knowledge-based economy and realise the full potential of our more innovative people, it will also take the involvement of our biggest companies and support from government bodies.

To this end, Invest Northern Ireland has said it plans to continue to dedicate “considerable resources” to nurture local entrepreneurship. This has been a major part of the organisation’s strategy as it goes about its goal of promoting enterprise across all the key sectors, particularly where there is export potential.

Invest NI’s Propel programme is viewed as a critical new element to this. The new programme aims to cultivate high growth, knowledge intensive businesses capable of generating significant export sales. It is now in the recruitment phase, with the deadline for applications September 18.

Sharon Polson, Invest NI’s head of entrepreneurship development, says that the programme is seeking to create opportunities for creative, ambitious and entrepreneurial individuals.

“By increasing the number of local cutting-edge, export focused enterprises, we can further develop the knowledge-led economy in Northern Ireland and strengthen our status as a base for innovative business growth.

“The Propel programme aims to nurture entrepreneurs who have knowledge intensive business ideas and help them to fast track the commercialisation of their concepts. This initiative also seeks to equip participants with the skills and contacts to sell their products or services on a global scale, generate significant profits and add value to the local economy,” she said.

The aim is for 30 potential entrepreneurs to start phase one in October. At the end of this period, 15 of the best candidates will progress to the more intensive phase two beginning in January 2010.

“It will be an intense programme and participants must be ready to invest their time, energy and dedication to developing their businesses and in return they will receive unparalleled support. At the end, we’ll have a number of confident business owners with investor-ready business plans — all within 12 months,” said Ms Polson.

The credentials of the Propel programme to drive entrepreneurship have already been proven by the success of its pilot programme last year. A number of successful businesses have already spawned from that programme, ranging from renewable energy to e-learning.

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Belfast Telegraph


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