Northern Ireland's hi-tech firms plug into networking at The Friday Night Mash-up
Claire Weir reports from the first Friday Night Mash-Up which aimed to link Northern Ireland start-ups with potential funders from all over the world
It's a networking event with a difference and there isn't a pinstripe in sight. Northern Ireland's bright new tech start-ups and potential funders now have a new way in which to meet, mingle and hopefully, make money.
The Friday Night Mash-up is run by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs and provides a great opportunity to meet with other big thinkers, tech enthusiasts, investors and media.
The inaugural event took place last week at the Titanic Pump House in Belfast.
It featured guest speakers, a panel discussion, a pitch event and demos from some up and coming firms as well as musical entertainment and a hog roast.
Even the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Mairtin O Muilleoir, popped in.
The First Citizen recently led a delegation of 20 technology and digital companies to the USA where they met companies, investors and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and San Diego as part of the Belfast Tech Mission.
The Friday Night Mash-Up was organised by a team of seven young entrepreneurs including Aaron Taylor, founder of GoPrezzo, a mobile games tournament platform based in New York and Belfast.
"We just thought that the time was right to create a space for tech start-ups to meet each other and share ideas in an informal setting and to meet or find out about potential new funders," he said.
"Belfast has really great potential but we need to start driving value back into the eco-system.
"We hope that hearing from established entrepreneurs will encourage those with ideas to seek go where the action is happening.
"I think in Belfast, while we have good people and good ideas, we can be a bit insular. We started this to connect people together and so people can get leverage from other people's experiences. If there is no cross-pollination we will all end up living in a silo."
Speakers included John Prynor, a member of the corporate innovation team at RocketSpace in San Diego.
John, is responsible for establishing partnerships between early stage technology companies and the Fortune 500 – America's top earning companies.
Such partnerships range from technology incubation to investment and acquisitions. Notable companies which have come through the RocketSpace process include Uber, Spotify, Leap Motion, Supercell and Podio and corporate partners include Samsung, British Airways, Microsoft, Pearson and General Motors.
"We offer physical space for start-ups that are past the ideas and seed round funding stage and are ready to grow," he said.
"We want to take the company from seed to egg.
"We have 7000 square feet of space helping 600 people from around 130 start-ups.
"I would encourage anyone who can to get over to the (Silicon) Valley. It's not that the start-ups here are bad, it's that there are more good start-ups and clusters.
"Belfast is on our radar but people need to put themselves out there."
John told of how when he first moved to America he lived in a "hacker house" or a "hostel for geeks. I got as many contacts as I could, as fast as possible," he said.
"What I think is really important is that you keep having events like this. Formal events, specific events, are all good but I think that some of the best ideas can happen over a beer."
Another speaker was Paul McDonnell, start-up director at the Web Summit, Europe's largest tech conference and the largest start-up gathering in the world.
His team speaks to more than 8,000 start-ups every year to curate a group of 900 companies exhibiting at the Web Summit.
He also organises the Pub Summit series and START, a gathering of 150 of the highest potential young companies from around the world.
His team connects these start-ups to leading venture capital firms and media to fast-track their routes to success and Paul explained how the Web Summit went from 30 speakers from one country, with four international investors and 500 attendees in 2010, to an event with 300 speakers from 100 countries, with 10,000 attendees and 400 international investors in just three years.
Completing the speakers was Chris McClelland, one of a team of beer enthusiasts behind Brewbot, a smart brewing appliance that you can control and monitor with a smartphone.
The company has used the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to raise almost £100,000 for their project and have travelled across America in a camper van in search of funding and support.
They spent a month on the west coast sourcing fabricators, materials and components.
"Kickstarter was great for us, they want creative, out of the box ideas and our company has the wow factor," he said.
"Home brewing has always had the reputation of being messy, dangerous, expensive and unsuccessful but our app makes it all much easier – thanks to a real mix of hardware and software – we essentially sell a robot that helps you make beer.
"We've had so much interest and exposure on Facebook and Twitter and blogs which has helped us reach markets like South Africa, Scandinavia and the USA and indeed Australia, where there are very high taxes on beer and we offer a real value proposition.
"We were just IT and tech guys but in two months the company went from nothing to off the scale because we caught people's imaginations.
"People love soundbites.
"I don't like the word networking – I prefer to think of making friendships and personal relationships and connections.
"I think for us it was really important to put ourselves out of our comfort zone and do things and meet people and do things we'd never done before."
Guests were also treated to musical entertainment from Patchblocks, another local business idea which is getting tens of thousands of pounds of support via Kickstarter.
German native Sebastian Heinz, now based in Belfast, has invented a mini, pocket-sized battery- powered synthesiser which can be programmed by the user to create music and play your desired sound effect.
Sebastian part-makes the Patchblocks at Belfast's FabLab, a workshop where individuals can work on projects, using lasercutters and 3D printers.
"I think one of Northern Ireland's greatest assets is its creativity and if the investment and education comes together this region could be a creative powerhouse," he said.
"I am a programmer and rather than – or, as well as – sit and stare at a computer all day, I thought I would make something tangible and enjoyable out of my work."
Finally, guests were treated to a Dragons' Den style pitch event by the demo companies, before voting for their favourite company.
The competition was won by Sian's Plan, a company which took part in the Belfast Tech Mission in October.
The firm gives a modern twist to healthy home cooking by formulating shopping lists, recipes and meal planners for working families, helping households eat better, smarter and more sustainably and reducing household waste.
Demos at the Friday Night Mash-up
This two-man team develops interactive 3D content, including software engineering and content creation. The team is in the final stages of developing a technology that enables users to easily interact with complex 3D scenes using simple mouse or touch interaction and also enables 3D artists to quickly place new content within that interactive environment.
The firm is also working on a game to accompany the 2014 Lego feature film.
This learning app aims to make kids great at maths. Developed by teachers and parents, it's aimed at ages 5 to 11 and works on tablets and desktop. Designed for home use and busy families, it suggests incentives for, and rewards good work. Komodo has been in the market for 12 months, recently pitched at Halo and is currently raising a £300,000 seed round to build out the team.
This firm gives start-ups a way to immediately show investors the cut of their jib. By collating all a company's online hits, mentions, views, funding and other information, Pirate Dashboard enables a start-up to modify their behaviour and gear them towards successful outcomes and investment.
The firm's tools and support helps busy parents provide real, healthy, home-cooked food, easily. Along with optimising family health, Sian's Plan helps reclaim over seven hours every week and at least £700 a year by eliminating food waste. Born in Wales, Sian Breslin has made Ireland her home for the past 30 years and has taught thousands of adults and youngsters how to cook and to manage their home.