Belfast Telegraph

Georgina O'Leary: My burning ambition to find a unicorn in Northern Ireland


The fintech sector is rapidly growing thoughout the world
The fintech sector is rapidly growing thoughout the world

By Georgina O'Leary

As a senior director in Allstate NI, one of the biggest companies in Northern Ireland, I get some strange looks when I meet people and tell them my burning ambition is to find a unicorn and that I think Northern Ireland is the best place in the world to do it.

I can understand the confusion. For those not in the know, the idea of me searching through the streets of Belfast for a mythical horned-horse must seem quite odd. The looks of confusion tend to move to looks of excitement when I tell them what a "unicorn" is.

When I talk about a unicorn, what I mean is a start-up valued at $1bn or more. The looks of excitement tend to turn to scoffs of disbelief when I assure people that NI is the perfect place to find one. At first glance there isn't much similarity between Lagan Valley and Silicon Valley after all.

What a lot of people don't realise is that NI is perfectly placed to take advantage of a revolution that is sweeping the world.

Financial technology or fintech is the term for the apps, computer programs and other technologies that support and improve how we bank and access finance. It currently contributes £6.6bn to the UK economy and is only growing. Ever used online banking? You've used fintech. Shop online? You've used fintech.

The UK Government has recognised the potential of this industry and in the last budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond re-affirmed his commitment to ensuring the UK is at the forefront of this new technological revolution.

This commitment has been matched with the appointment of fintech envoys to promote the industry in different parts of the country. I was honoured to be chosen as envoy for NI and I've seen first-hand the incredible potential here.

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One of the most exciting things happening in NI right now is the collaboration between large and small companies to innovate and drive the industry forward.

The recently opened Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub at Danske Bank and the collaboration between Barclays and the Ormeau Baths are both examples of large firms providing resources and support to start-ups to help them develop.

Belfast has start-ups that are using these collaborative opportunities to help them compete on a global scale.

The fintech revolution has also been recognised by our fantastic further and higher education institutions. Collaboration between businesses and these has led Ulster University to begin developing the first fintech degree.

Ulster University and Queen's University Belfast are internationally renowned and the quality of our further education institutions such as North West Regional College make Northern Ireland incredibly attractive to investors.

Just last week the announcement of 100 new jobs at fintech firm Options in Belfast shows the confidence in this growing sector.

There are already dozens of unicorns in London and some in Scotland. Northern Ireland is already an internationally recognised centre of excellence in cybersecurity and the UK Government is committed to ensuring Northern Ireland takes full advantage of the opportunities fintech presents.

Our talented pool of workers, fantastic educational institutions, our vibrant and energetic start-up scene and the close collaboration between start-ups and big companies means Northern Ireland is the perfect place to find a fintech unicorn, or even start one yourself.

Georgina O'Leary is the director of innovation, research and development at Allstate and fintech envoy for Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph