Belfast Telegraph

New hatchery will inspire and support our leaders

Ulster Bank's Richard Donnan on how its scheme can give good business ideas the space to flourish

By Richard Donnan

As part of the recent Belfast One City conference, I had the opportunity to talk to many members of Northern Ireland’s diaspora, to understand what their aspirations were for NI, and get the perspective of some ‘informed outsiders’ on the sectors and local businesses that have the potential to shine on the global stage.

It was an encouraging session, which highlighted the wealth of ambition and experience that is uniquely available to NI companies, particularly when it comes to developing new trade and export connections. I believe that not only should we be making the most of the accrued knowledge of the diaspora community, so, too, should we need to create better pathways for the next generation.

That’s why Ulster Bank’s new Entrepreneurial Spark hatchery, opening in Belfast in February, is an excellent chance for us to turn these words into action when it comes to supporting entrepreneurs. It is a practical and tangible demonstration of the way we want to improve the prospects for early stage businesses and entrepreneurs.

We have a great local history of entrepreneurs, but in a more globalised market, it is important we are not complacent. We need to be mindful of encouraging those who have bright prospects to stay in Northern Ireland — giving them the confidence that there is a culture of support and celebration for their talents.

The material barriers to entrepreneurship can be daunting — but there are also important psychological factors at play. Dealing with the details of administration and day-to-day operations can be distracting to an entrepreneurial vision. By taking away the stress of finding the right office space, or setting up a fast broadband connection, a business accelerator such as Entrepreneurial Spark makes it possible for people to focus more clearly on making their business a success.

This space allows for clarity of thought and removes distractions. In doing so, we hope it will create a challenging and vibrant culture, as has been seen at other hatcheries across the UK — with like-minded people helping to inspire each other. Not every idea is an instant success. But by giving people the raw materials, and investing up to 18 months of time in them personally, we enhance their ability to develop new business ideas that they are passionate about.

Recently in Ulster Bank, we hosted a pitching competition, where six exciting young entrepreneurs had one minute to sell their business idea to a group of would-be investors. The discipline needed and the chance to hone these skills in a safe environment is what makes the Entrepreneurial Spark programme so exciting — it allows people to make mistakes without putting their business on the line — producing companies that are more resilient, innovative and investable.

We continually challenge ourselves to match the invention and enterprise of our young entrepreneurs. I find it an exciting and inspiring challenge. There is no magic wand to developing a proactive and export-focused business culture, but initiatives like Entrepreneurial Spark represent a practical way to build on what has come before.

Those interested in finding out more about Entrepreneurial Spark can visit

Richard Donnan is head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph

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