Belfast Telegraph

Why tech sector is ready to thrive in province's own Silicon Causeway


By Simon Hamilton

Northern Ireland has a rich industrial heritage that we are all very familiar with. The Belfast skyline still reminds us of the industries that made our capital city a global economic engine.

Things may have changed in our economy over the past 100 years, but we are still blessed with some world-class industries.  

Just last week I visited mobile quarrying equipment manufacturer Sandvik, in Ballygawley. They are at the heart of a cluster of 100 companies who are constructing 40% of the world's mobile crushing and screening equipment.

Another emerging and increasingly important aspect of our economy is our ever-growing tech sector.

Tech City UK's Tech Nation 2016 report found that the digital and tech sector in Northern Ireland was burgeoning and, outside of London and the South East, made the largest contribution to the regional economy.

We maybe don't think of Northern Ireland as a tech hub, but, quietly, almost under the radar, we are gaining a well-deserved reputation as a region where tech businesses are thriving.

The foundations are firmly in place that will allow us to construct our own Silicon Causeway, running from one end of Northern Ireland to the other.

From the North West Science Park in Londonderry through to the Enterprise Zone in Coleraine and down to Newry, the home of some of our leading high-tech companies, with Belfast - Europe's leading destination city for new software development projects - at its heart, bit by bit we are building a Northern Ireland- wide tech industry that we can be proud of.

We are now home to a huge number of international companies, like Citi and Allstate, working in the sector, with Silicon Valley firms like BDNA now making Northern Ireland home.

We have seen indigenous tech firms like Kainos, Novosco and First Derivatives grow in size and become global leaders.

We have a superb skills base supported by international-standard research facilities like the Centre for Secure Information Technologies at Queen's and Ulster's Intelligent Systems Research Centre.

We have a range of support and programmes in place such as Startplanet NI and Propel aimed in particular at early-stage and high-potential technology-based start-ups. And, perhaps most crucially, we have a fast developing ecosystem including the likes of Catalyst Inc, Digital DNA and Immersive Tech NI, which combine to create a vibrant tech community across Northern Ireland.

Becoming a globally competitive economy isn't about a trade-off between large manufacturing companies and high-tech firms. Some might think that a growing tech cluster in Northern Ireland will be at the expense of, or a substitute for, traditional sectors. In reality, tech firms like Seagate are not only conducting the research and development into their cutting-edge, heat assisted magnetic recording technology at their facility in Londonderry, they also intend to manufacture the new product there too. 

Businesses like Chicago Mercantile Exchange, whose first ever investment outside of their hometown was in Belfast, are utilising the strong engineering ethos that is such a central part of our economy to find new software solutions.

I am proud of Northern Ireland's industrial heritage. I see its legacy every single day and nowhere more so than in our expanding local tech sector. 

As we continue our journey towards creating a globally competitive economy, I want Northern Ireland to be on the international map for our tech sector every bit as much as we are for our agri-foods, our engineering and our life sciences.

Simon Hamilton is the Executive's Economy Minister

Belfast Telegraph