For years the UK’s tech sector was easy to locate: a stone’s throw from London’s financial district in the streets of Shoreditch or down the M4 corridor.
But times have changed and I am proud to say that thriving digital tech businesses can now be found right across the UK and in particular in Northern Ireland and Belfast.
Belfast was built on trade and commerce. Its rich heritage in heavy engineering - making first ships, then aircraft and electronics - means the technical skills and knowhow of its people are in demand. But now it is busy building a thriving new economy, one fit for the future, based on digital skills.
New figures from the Government’s Digital Economy Council and Tech Nation show that Belfast has 26 per cent of its workforce employed in the tech sector. Alongside Cambridge it shares the plaudits for employing a greater proportion of people in tech than any other city in the UK.
If we have learned one thing in the last six months, it is that the digital tech sector is central to our lives: at home and at work. We rely on it both to make social connections and keep in touch with family and to keep business flowing, working with colleagues, making sales, finding better ways to do things.
In Northern Ireland the tech sector is providing a thriving new dimension to the economy, creating highly valuable, well-paid jobs. Average salaries in the sector in Belfast were £40,000 in 2019, significantly higher than the £34,000 average salary for a non-tech role and level pegging with Birmingham and Glasgow.
The number of tech jobs advertised in Belfast has also been climbing, up by two per cent year on year. The tech sector here is no flash in the pan but a sustainable growing cluster that is creating employment and opportunity. There were more than 13,600 jobs advertised in tech in Belfast alone in 2019.
Companies such as Neueda, the Belfast-based digital solutions company, have grown exponentially and last month it said it would hire an additional 230 people as part of a £20 million investment, which will help it to increase sales internationally. It is one of many businesses supported by Invest Northern Ireland.
Last week healthtech firm Neurovalens took part in a special London Tech Week event at Number 10 with the Prime Minister and exhibited their technology that actively stimulates key brainstem neurons, without needing implanted electrodes. Treatment in this way removes the need for invasive surgery, reducing the risk to the patient and the cost of intervention, leading to better patient outcomes.
It is the extensive talent available in Belfast, coming out of its universities and businesses, that encouraged companies like See.sense, a cycling data and technology company that makes connected products and uses AI to make cycling safer, to set up here.
It is also home to the Titanic Studios, one of Europe’s largest and cutting-edge film studios which boasts advanced ICT infrastructure and has attracted producers such as HBO, Universal and Playtone and Game of Thrones.
Another sector growing robustly is fintech. Northern Ireland has been named as one of the leading global fintech locations of the future: in the 2019/20 fDi league table alongside cities including Singapore, New York and London. This summer several firms in the region announced they would be hiring, including Riskonnect, Cygilant and Vox Financial Partners.
The optimism on display here matches that which is steadily returning to other parts of the nation. Since June there has been a sharp rise in tech companies posting job ads. A third more vacancies were advertised in August than there were in June, according to new analysis of jobs data from Tech Nation and DEC. These welcome figures show how tech companies across the country are starting to recover from the difficulties caused by the pandemic.
The challenges will take time to overcome but just as the 2008 financial crisis triggered an entrepreneurship boom in the UK, from which Silicon Roundabout’s cluster of startups has grown into a nationwide network of more than 35,000 businesses, these figures demonstrate that Northern Ireland’s tech sector is resilient and has deep foundations to emerge strongly from the crisis.