Belfast Telegraph

Nothing is impossible to those with a dream

Northern Ireland has all the skills to become an entrepreneurial powerhouse, helping to lift the economy at this time of recession, argues US Economic Envoy Declan Kelly

This week millions around the globe have participated in Global Entrepreneurship Week, an initiative that challenges young people to embrace innovation, creativity and imagination in achieving business success. As young people embrace this initiative, I encourage entrepreneurs of all ages to think about innovative business ideas that will help grow Northern Ireland's economy.

Entrepreneurship and innovation are particularly important during challenging economic times, and are at the heart of competitive advantage for any business. Economic downturns create opportunities for those who can fill a gap in the market or disrupt the status quo.

As a result of the economic downturn of the last few years, entrepreneurship and business start-ups have seen a significant increase in the United States. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, a leading indicator of new-business creation in the US, the number of new businesses created between 2007 and 2009 increased steadily year over year. In 2009, 27,000 more businesses were started per month than in 2008, and 60,000 more were started per month than in 2007.

In contrast, Total Early-stage Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) in the UK in 2009 showed only a very modest increase over 2007 and 2008, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor UK 2009 report. This is not good news. We live in a global economic environment where entrepreneurs are critical to job creation and economic recovery, and Northern Ireland must find ways to keep encouraging business start-ups.

Northern Ireland has an entrepreneurial culture and is backed by strong innovation centres at world-class universities, with support from the private and public sectors. This fosters the right environment for starting and growing businesses. Over 6,000 people start a new business each year in Northern Ireland. This is an incredible number on a per capita basis.

There are nearly 126,000 small and medium sized enterprises in the region and these companies are the backbone of the local economy, employing over 63% of the private sector workforce.

For over a year now I have had the honour of serving as the US Economic Envoy to Northern Ireland. In this capacity, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand the incredible entrepreneurial spirit that exists across the entire region and witnessed the tremendous examples of entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland today. The Northern Ireland Science Park (NISP) CONNECT program is fostering technology start-ups from Queen's University and University of Ulster. Last month LenisAer, a spinout from the University of Ulster, won top prize at the NISP CONNECT 25K Awards for developing a cost-effective method for manufacturing airline engine covers which improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

Other examples of entrepreneurship include the Belfast-based medical technology firm SiSaf which scooped one of the two major prizes at the Irish Technology Leadership Group's (ITLG) annual awards ceremony for development of an innovative drug-delivery system.

Last month, I had the privilege of organising the US-NI Economic Conference on behalf of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During the conference, the CEOs and senior executives of the largest US companies currently invested in Northern Ireland discussed the reasons for selecting Northern Ireland as a location for investment. Again and again we heard words like innovation, persistence and quality of education. These skills are what international corporations are looking for, and they are also the key ingredients for taking a risk and starting a new business.

Speaking at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC last spring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated: "Being entrepreneurial does not depend on your job title or what you studied in school or even that you went to formal schooling at all. Entrepreneurship is a way of looking at the world and seeing not just obstacles, but opportunities; not just the world as it is, but the world as it could be, and then having the confidence, the determination, and the resources to move those worlds closer together.

"An entrepreneur is anyone with the imagination to conceive of a new product, process, or service, and the ability and persistence to turn that idea into something real."

Northern Ireland has the right environment to cultivate entrepreneurship and continue to build innovative businesses.

Entrepreneurship and innovation are essential to building the economy of the future. A strong economy depends on a broad range of service and product businesses that are geographically diverse and spread across a wide range of business sectors. Whether a small local agricultural business, or an innovative high-tech firm, there is no limit to what can be done with confidence, determination, and encouragement.

Entrepreneurs of all ages are key to Northern Ireland's future success, but there is no doubt about the vital role young people play in building that future.

This is one of the reasons we launched the US-NI Mentorship Programme last spring. The mentorship programme will provide recent graduates with the opportunity to spend one year working in the US for a major corporation. During the year they will receive mentorship from senior executives and gain invaluable business skills that will benefit them for the rest of their careers. Most importantly, it will allow them to return to Northern Ireland prepared to be entrepreneurs and business leaders in their own communities.

I have stated on many occasions that I believe Northern Ireland can become one of the world's fastest growing economies on a per capita basis over the next five years. In order to accomplish this, the region must continue its focus on attracting high quality foreign direct investment. Only through a combination of inward investment and indigenous growth will the region achieve lasting economic prosperity.

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