Question and answer: Northern Ireland tech sector really vibrant
Hal Wilson, a veteran of the venture capital scene, is the Belfast partner of Pentech Ventures, manager of seed and early stage fund techstart NI.
How did your career bring you to Pentech Ventures?
I have been part of the venture capital scene since 1996. I have worked directly and indirectly with a number of the venture capital fund managers both in the north and in the south – these networks and experiences led me to Pentech.
Name the people to whom you owe your present success.
My grandfather who suggested to me that it was down to me to make a difference (if that's what you want to do).
My wife, Terri, who has unconditionally supported the risks I have taken in my business career.
What is the Northern Ireland tech sector like to work in?
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The Northern Ireland tech sector is vibrant currently. There is the beginning of a 'can do' mentality that is driven by entrepreneurs in their early 30s who are getting on their bike and exploring markets. More seasoned entrepreneurs will help such folk.
How would you characterise the Northern Ireland enterpreneurial community?
It's growing. It's willing to give back and help others. It should be bigger.
Are there any failings there, compared to the entrepreneurial community in the Republic, or in other parts of the UK?
We don't sell ourselves as well as we could and should. We should get out of Northern Ireland and build relationships beyond these shores.
You've been involved in some big transactions, such as Avalon to Perkin Elmer, APT to Audemat and Lagan Technologies to Kana. Has there been a slowdown in the frequency of big deals in the Northern Ireland tech sector, and if so, why?
I don't think there has been a noticeable slowdown. Our market is small so business is always lumpy and somewhat unpredictable.
Can the input of Pentech though techstart NI help pick up the pace of such deals in the future?
techstart NI definitely has a role to play. We are positioned at the very early stages of tech company formation and development so we will be seeding a large number of companies over the coming five years. A number of these should develop into some of the market's more interesting participants.
Have you received a strong response since techstart NI was announced in July?
Yes we have. We have only been operational for a couple of months and we are already bringing our first few investments across the line this month. We have been encouraged by the quality of a number of the opportunities we are seeing.
Could more of our tech companies go for a stock market listing in the near future?
It's horses for courses. A stock market listing isn't an end in itself. There are a number of Northern Ireland tech companies that undoubtedly could seek a listing but whether or not it is right is another matter. A greater connection with the public capital markets is a feature of a healthy economy and through our networks in Great Britain we would hope to be able to play some part in this.
What advice would you give a tech start-up in Northern Ireland?
You must intimately understand what problem you are proposing to solve – this can only be gained by direct contact with the market. Target markets that are large and have money available. Understand and be able to demonstrate why you are different. Business is a team sport – build a team.