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IT Company of the Year category reflects growth in tech business

Neasa Quigley, partner at law firm Carson McDowell, sponsor of the IT Company of the Year, on the importance of the sector to Northern Ireland's economy


IT firm Novosco was last year’s IT Company of the Year. Its founder Patrick McAliskey (right) was joined by Invest NI boss Alastair Hamilton

IT firm Novosco was last year’s IT Company of the Year. Its founder Patrick McAliskey (right) was joined by Invest NI boss Alastair Hamilton

IT firm Novosco was last year’s IT Company of the Year. Its founder Patrick McAliskey (right) was joined by Invest NI boss Alastair Hamilton

Over the course of the past three years we have seen economic growth slowing down to a very modest rate across the UK and Northern Ireland.

This has in part been down to difficult trading conditions for traditional industries such as construction and manufacturing as well as the challenging environment that the retail sector currently finds itself.

One sector which has shown consistent strong growth despite the nervousness in other parts of the economy is the IT, technology and digital sector.

Globally, it is generally accepted that tech companies are the new dominant force in business, with household names like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft rivalling big industrial, retail and energy firms as the most valuable companies in the world.

Locally, economic development agency Invest NI has tried to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits by attracting a number of high profile foreign direct investors in the tech space who have created hundreds of jobs, including recent arrivals like Rapid 7, Bazaar Voice, Whitehat Security and Cayan.

They have joined long-established FDI companies like Allstate, Liberty IT, Fujitsu and SAP to create a market that is full of exciting options for young developers and software engineers.

Those players have undoubtedly made an important contribution to growing our local tech skills base and infrastructure.

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But the real value for Northern Ireland lies in the parallel growth of our own indigenous tech companies. Companies such as London Stock Exchange-listed Kainos, AIM-listed First Derivatives and privately owned STATsports Technologies and Neueda employ hundreds of people in their own right and we have a vast number of small and mid-sized tech firms who are also thriving and creating wealth here in NI.

Northern Ireland is also leading the way in global terms in cyber security thanks to local and international firms coalescing around the Centre for Secure Information Technology (CSIT), and Carson McDowell is proud to be the official partner of the NI Cyber Cluster to support its effort to grow the sector.

I read with interest a recent article where someone pondered whether we'll ever see a tech unicorn - a $1bn-valued company - from Northern Ireland.

While this may be an ambitious goal, aspiring to see a global tech behemoth springing up in Belfast or Derry perhaps misses the point.

I'd rather see 20 homegrown tech companies that are worth £50m or £100m each as that would be evidence that our tech industry has gone from being an emerging sector to a flourishing cornerstone of our economy.

It is estimated that NI has a cluster of around 1,200 tech and IT companies, only 100 of which are those international tech businesses with NI bases.

That underlines the importance of supporting those smaller NI-born companies as they attempt to scale up, attract investment, acquire rivals or to be sold themselves (as this often sees entrepreneurs move on to a new tech venture).

Relay Software is a case in point, attracting equity investment from Hg Capital and then an exit for the owners via the acquisition by Applied Systems.

It is vital that we all continue to invest in the start-up ecosystem that is nurturing some of these nascent tech players.

It is brilliant to see so many start-up hubs and accelerators running in Northern Ireland to guide and shape these early stage companies, and for them to know there is a broadening mix of seed funding and angel investment being provided by Invest NI, TechStart NI, Co-Fund NI, HBAN and other venture capital funds and private investors.

Catalyst is a wonderful example of a local organisation which exists to facilitate and foster an entrepreneurial culture here in the know-how sector.

It's heartening that we now regularly hear about early stage tech businesses from Northern Ireland securing funding - companies such as Neurovalens, Uleska, B-Secur and Liopa to name but a few - as it means more of them have a chance to go all the way.

It is companies in this sector that will be rewarded in the IT Company of the Year category that Carson McDowell is sponsoring at the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards.

It is a sector we are heavily involved with and in which we have broad expertise.

I wish all of the entrants good luck and congratulate them on the part they are already playing in growing a sector that will be pivotal to Northern Ireland's future.