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A world of business knowledge to exploit


(l-r) Dr Andrew Woods and Professor Roy Douglas

(l-r) Dr Andrew Woods and Professor Roy Douglas

David Patterson is the CEO and co-founder of Sophie Search

David Patterson is the CEO and co-founder of Sophie Search

(l-r) Dr Andrew Woods and Professor Roy Douglas

A cash injection and more publicity for Northern Ireland’s ‘Knowledge Economy’ — businesses and start-ups focused on sectors like computers, science, engineering and maths — could generate an additional £5bn for the Northern Ireland economy annually.

The second Knowledge Economy Index report for the Northern Ireland Science Park’s CONNECT project by Oxford Economics, was launched at Stormont last week.

It follows the inaugural baseline report in 2011 and the latest findings show a slight increase in the number of knowledge economy jobs, businesses and wages in Northern Ireland, despite wages remaining fairly stagnant in many sectors.

Statistics also showed that the knowledge economy sector represented 4.6% of total employment here, compared to 6.1% in all other UK regions, while a knowledge economy worker earns, on average, 42% more than the Northern Ireland mean wage and is 48% more productive.

However stumbling blocks include a low level of patent activity.

The key recommendation of the report is the implementation of a new approach to risk capital intervention by the Northern Ireland government to enable many more companies to form and develop high value products that would be in demand around the world.

The report added that Northern Ireland needs stronger management teams in new start-up companies, better measures to inspire children to aspire to careers in the knowledge economy rather than the professions.

Steve Orr, director of NISP CONNECT, said that such intervention would mean more job opportunities and rates of economic growth would surpass that experienced during the last boom.

Mr Orr graduated from the University of Northumbria in 1994 with a degree in Business Information Technology and for the following six years worked in Buckinghamshire, San Diego and San Francisco.

In 2000, Steve co-founded Kineticom Inc, a San Diego, California based technical talent firm which in 2006 Kineticom was ranked at number 33 on the Inc 500, the list of the fastest growing privately held companies in the US.

Steve has now returned to his roots and hopes to use his experience in California to help entrepreneurs from Northern Ireland.

He said that San Diego managed to transform its own fortunes by developing a Knowledge Economy after facing the “burning floor” of a collapse in the defence budget which threatened thousands of jobs.

He said that the collapse of big engineering firms like FG Wilson are Northern Ireland’s “burning floor” from which the economy needs to escape, adding that if the Knowledge Economy can create 39,000 direct jobs by 2030, a further 22,500 can be created in the supply chain.

“If the Northern Ireland economy is to reach its full growth potential, the Government needs to commit £25m a year, every year for 20 years, to a programme of risk capital intervention,” he said.

“We need to create new products that people around the world want to buy. What are we going to make, how are we going to solve problems for people all over the world? We need to promote the creation of innovative new companies.

“We need to move away from the old industrial age of infrastructure, labour, land and capital into the new knowledge age of ideas, capital and talent. We need to turn Northern Ireland into one of the most entrepreneurial Knowledge Economies in Europe by 2030.

“Our biggest blockers are talent, culture and risk capital. We need to brand the tech lifestyle and sell a different lifestyle, we need kids to aspire to get involved and we need businesses to collaborate to compete.

“Too many schools are pushing kids into professions — some seem to be competing as to how many children they can get into medicine when we need something different. We need to make Northern Ireland a more interesting place to live and work to attract and keep our best people.”

Concern was expressed in the report that Northern Ireland is dependent on a relatively small number of large firms for a significant proportion of its research and development expenditure, whereas in other innovative economies most R&D is concentrated in small companies.

Another finding identified the level of patent activity in 2012 as comparatively low compared to the rest of the UK, as was the level of investment activity, despite a historical high of £20m in venture capital in 2011.

Incoming finance minister. DUP MLA Simon Hamilton said people need to look to Northern Ireland’s past to see the potential for growth in the future.

“People say that Northern Ireland is too small to succeed compared to other knowledge economies like San Diego,” he said.

“But they forget our past. 100 years ago, where the Northern Ireland Science Park is located now, we built the biggest ship the world had ever seen. Down the road, we built aircraft that won a war. The electric defibrillator, the pneumatic tyre, the ejector seat, all invented and made here.

“We need to build upon that innovation. It is in our DNA and we just need to tap into it.

“Recent big business wins for Bombardier and Montupet in the manufacturing sector show that sustained investment in research and development does pay off.”

About NISP Connect

NISP CONNECT is an independent, nonprofit organisation fostering entrepreneurship by accelerating the growth of promising technologies and early stage companies.

A collaboration between Northern Ireland Science Park (NISP), the University of Ulster, Queen’s University, Belfast and AFBI (Agri Food and BioSciences Institute), NISP CONNECT acts as an ‘honest, neutral broker’ within the region.

NISP CONNECT focuses on:

  • research institution support
  • business creation and development
  • entrepreneurial learning
  • access to capital
  • public policy advocacy
  • awards, recognition and networking.

NISP CONNECT is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund under the European Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland 2007–2013.

Case Study 1 - Categen: Dr Andrew Woods CEO

Catagen manufactures and exports catalyst test equipment that makes mandatory catalytic converter testing (required in the automotive sector) easier, more cost effective and less harmful to the environment.

We provide real competitive advantages for our customers in today's ever evolving emission legislation.

Catagen was incorporated in 2010, based on research done at Queen's University Belfast. The initial concept was developed as part of my PhD research and since completion of the degree it took a further two years to translate the R&D into a commercial product that vehicle manufacturers were willing to purchase.

Throughout the process, that has been the biggest challenge. It is a huge leap to go from research environment into a fully operational commercial product and an operating business. Thankfully, Catagen have managed to do this successfully however, it is a chasm that many young businesses struggle to cross.

I believe there is adequate support out there, but it's as much as about finding the right resources and tapping into them. I think there is a lack of visible case studies of local success stories. People who may be considering a business start-up as a career option need to know that it is possible to bridge that gap with the correct business strategy, help and support.

We are very pleased to be the overall winners of this year's Intertrade Ireland High Growth Seedcorn Award.

The prize fund will be used to further boost sales activities and we also wish to invest in our local operations. This will help to further grow our business.

Case Study 2 - Sophie Search: David Patterson, CEO and co-founder

Our products help organisations leverage more value from their information - improving their business intelligence and decision making and helping them become more creative, profitable and efficient.

For example, our 'Digital Librarian', which earlier this year won four new contracts in the US publishing and government sectors, understands the meaning of documents including pdfs, word files, news feeds and social media.

It uses this inherent understanding to enrich each document with additional knowledge to make it easier to find when people search, as well as adding information about its topic and sub topic.

Our company has brought our product from early stage to market and we are now concentrating on building up a customer base and scaling the business.

As well as our Belfast office, we have an R&D base in Russia, while our Silicon Valley office in the US is sales focused.

In the next nine months, we hope to increase our staff from 12 to 24 and continue to build our customer base in the US.

We feel very passionate about growing our engineering base in Belfast - it is something to be very proud of. We want to be a local company, creating jobs and wealth for local people.

It is absolutely critical for the future of the economy in Northern Ireland that people are encouraged to support others who are setting out on this path. We have to encourage people not to be afraid to try.

There is no limit to our ambitions ...

Belfast Telegraph