Mission accomplished by Northern Ireland's star innovators in California
Northern Ireland's most exciting start-ups are just home from an insightful trip to America's west coast. Yvette Shapiro reports on the third annual NI Tech Mission
If you're serious about growing a technology company, you have to head west at some point. A 15-strong group of Northern Ireland entrepreneurs spent last week in California, as part of the third annual NI Tech Mission, led by Stormont Ministers Jonathan Bell and Stephen Farry.
"It was a definite step up on last year," said Steve Orr, director of the Northern Ireland Science Park's NISP Connect programme, which organised the mission along with Invest NI.
"We had a session with 16 mentors including senior people from major companies. Our entrepreneurs had three or four meetings each, around 80 meetings were held in three hours. The mentors were very impressed with our companies.
"California is used to seeing international delegations of entrepreneurs. Our people were well prepared and the mentors were impressed that many of them already have revenues. They got a deep grilling on their technology and they stood up to it.
"Some of the companies were looking for distributors, others for collaborators to help them take their products to market. Some were looking for investment and I know that at least one was made an offer on the spot following a pitch. That's very rare on a trip like this. The companies have lots of follow-up work to do now."
The Northern Ireland "brand" was also enhanced by the success of the tech mission and the presence of the enterprise and employment ministers, said Steve.
"We're building a brand for the Northern Ireland tech sector and events like this really help to put us on the map with some of the biggest companies in the world. The ministers put their names to what we were doing, it helped to raise the profile and meant that we're moving in bigger circles. It all helps."
Steve Orr believes that the majority of the companies taking part on the mission have the potential for significant growth.
"Four of five of them certainly will become major players in the tech sector," he said. "Here in Belfast we've now developed a capability of incubating tech companies that is as good as you will find anywhere in the world, including California."
One of the firms taking part in the mission was Re-Vana, a Queen's University spin-out company in the life sciences field. Its founders have developed innovative technology for delivering drug treatment to patients with eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, uveitis and glaucoma.
"We're looking to raise money to take the company forward," said Re-Vana's Rob Grundy. "We wanted to make connections with venture capitalists and private angel investors who are familiar with biotech investment, and California is a real centre of funding in this sector.
"In addition, the technology we have developed requires integration with other people's technology and we were able to meet with two companies who are leading the way in opthamology drug treatment.
"Relationships have been built and consolidated and now we can share data about the latest innovations."
Rob added that travelling as part of the NI Tech Mission helped to open doors and enable access to the right people.
"Invest NI and NISP Connect did a tremendous job in pulling in people for the pitches who were well-informed and knowledgeable. We were at Stanford, the best university in the world, meeting people who are leaders in the sector."
Although California is the undisputed centre of the tech world, Rob Grundy believes that companies can be based in Northern Ireland and still achieve scale.
"There's always tension between where you are based and where the funding comes from. There are, of course, more funds available in Boston and California. But I'm adamant that we can build successful life science companies in Belfast. The world is a smaller place and doing business worldwide is a lot easier now. We have great universities and entrepreneurial talent here. There's no reason why we can't succeed."