Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's knowledge economy is at risk of running out of puff due to lack of funding, say experts

By John Mulgrew

Northern Ireland must triple investment in research and development and increase venture capital funding in its knowledge economy because growth is now beginning to slow. That's according to Steve Orr, director of Connect at Catalyst Inc, who was speaking at the launch of the Knowledge Economy Index.

But Noel McKenna, chief executive of cyber security company Titan IC, said: "Northern Ireland has the opportunity to create its own Silicon Valley for cyber-security in Belfast".

However, the province is "struggling" to get enough top people for cyber-security roles, according to Stephen Wray, director of cyber risk services at Deloitte Digital. He said there was "zero per cent unemployment" in the sector.

Almost 40,000 people are now employed in the so-called knowledge economy here, boasting £5bn in sales each year, according to the latest report.

Professor John McCanny said he was concerned that smaller numbers of people here were studying PhDs.

"It worries me on a number of fronts," he said.

And Mr Orr said "our education system was designed in the Victorian age" and "needs to be modernised".

He said there must be a "primary focus on indigenous companies" first, alongside foreign direct investment.

But he warned the growth was "running out of puff".

He said that if spending slowed or investment staggered "it is only going to get worse".

Mr Orr said investment here must increase by around 10% to ensure growth continues.

And to do that he said Northern Ireland needed to triple its research and development spend to £1.5bn, as well as increase venture capital lending to £90m.

"We aren't going to be Cambridge or Oxford, but we are snapping at their heels," he said.

Meanwhile, there will be doubts over funding following the vote for Brexit, according to David Crozier, head of strategic partnerships and engagement at the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) at Queen's University.

"There's always a risk... but on the opportunity side, if you look at the recent UK cyber-security strategy which has been published, the UK Government is doubling its investment," it said.

"Also on the plus side, the sectors that are covered by the knowledge economy, every one of those sectors requires cyber-security."

Ian Sheppard, Bank of Ireland's regional director for Northern Ireland, said one key to success for companies was to ensure they had access to markets outside the region.

Also addressing those gathered at the launch, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton praised our technology and innovation, and said it was "gaining a well-deserved reputation as a region where technology firms are thriving".

The knowledge economy includes firms involved in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, software, electronics, aerospace and financial technology. Firms in Northern Ireland contribute 30% of the total exports, while 70% of its sales are based outside the EU, according to the new report.

Mr Hamilton said: "It is very encouraging to see that we are experiencing record numbers of new knowledge economy companies being established and more people than ever employed in the sector."

The report shows that Northern Ireland is performing strongly in a number of areas.

That includes the number of new start-ups, the number of venture capitalist deals, and innovation.

However, it says areas which could still be improved include the overall level of investment, the number of publicly listed companies in the province and the volume of science and technology graduates.

The Knowledge Economy Index predicts that as many as 160,000 roles - including indirect jobs - will be created here by 2030.

Belfast Telegraph