Belfast Telegraph

Report warns of Northern Ireland knowledge economy threat

The Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) reveals that almost 36,000 people are employed in the sector which pays higher than average wages and is worth around £3.4bn annually

By Staff Reporter

Cuts to higher education could endanger Northern Ireland's fast growing knowledge economy, according to a major new report published today.

The Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) reveals that almost 36,000 people are employed in the sector which pays higher than average wages and is worth around £3.4bn annually, representing 10% of the local economy.

Companies involved in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, software, electronics, aerospace and financial technology are among those driving the knowledge economy.

But a shortage of high level skills and a decline in world-leading research and development could hinder further growth and put jobs at risk.

Steve Orr, director of the Northern Ireland Science Park's NISP Connect project, said: "The knowledge economy is the most important investment that Northern Ireland can make long term by creating the most high-value sustainable jobs and great opportunities for our people."

But he warned that a shortage of "really smart people" could mean that competitive advantage is lost.

In particular, he was concerned that the number of PhDs is falling.

"Government must re-commit to the DEL Higher Education Strategy and ring fence funding for postgraduate research students with the aim of securing at least 1,000 funded PhD places per year," he said.

"We cannot afford to be complacent and if we do not increase investment in Stem education, support more PhDs and challenge businesses to step up and invest more in vital research and development, the gains of the past will slip away."

The report, produced by the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, revealed that 410 businesses had been created in the knowledge economy in the past year and that salaries in the sector are 50% higher than the average wage.

Ian Sheppard, Bank of Ireland UK regional director of business and corporate banking NI, added: "Northern Ireland may have been starting from a very low base, but a strong focus on innovation and growth has produced more than four thousand new knowledge economy jobs across the whole of Northern Ireland since 2009.

"This kind of monitoring over a long time period is essential to guiding political and corporate policies, but we must acknowledge the evidence and act on it for long term gain."

NISP, which helps to support the development of innovative technologies and early stage firms through programmes and seminars, believes up to 40,000 jobs could be created in the knowledge economy over the next 15 years, if growth stays on target.

Case Study 1: Biotech firm launches new product

SiSaf, an innovative biotech company based in Belfast and California, is about to become much better known with the launch of its first commercial skincare product. An anti-acne cream called Dr SiSaf will be on the shelves next year.

An Ulster University spin-out company founded by Dr Suzanne Saffie-Siebert, SiSaf has developed a unique nanoparticle silicon-based platform that has very broad formulation applications. The nanoparticles dissolve to Orthosilicic acid, the natural form of silicon absorbed from food. In layman’s terms, its technology is edible.

The company has had significant investment rounds, which has allowed it to recruit a team of research experts. It’s also been developing products for the animal health sector.

Dr Saffie-Sibert said: “In our animal welfare division, we have signed an exclusive licensing deal with an international biotech company for use of our technology for their products, primarily in feed additives. This is leading on to securing a major animal health partnership.”

Case Study 2: Brewbot takes beer into 21st century

Craft beer has thrown off its fusty homebrew image to become a global phenomenon. And Belfast company Brewbot is helping to lead the way with world-beating technology that’s attracted international investment.

The team has developed a ‘robot’ device that brews beer via a smartphone app.

It takes care of the temperatures, timings and volumes in a data and visual format that Brewbot has dubbed the ‘DNA of Beer’.

The invention took off with the help of crowdfunding. It was one of the most successful UK Kickstarter projects and was impressively oversubscribed in a recent US seed round where it raised more than £1m.

Brewbot has recently taken on some top tech talent, including a former employee at Tesla in San Francisco, as well as a senior brewer to bring its beer creations to life at its new bar on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.

Belfast Telegraph