Belfast Telegraph

Building a very strong fintech hub in Belfast is only the beginning

Belfast could become a brilliant ecosystem for start-ups

Staff at the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub
Staff at the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub

By David Allister

It has become clear in the year since we opened the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub that there are a host of people who share our goal of making Belfast a brilliant ecosystem for start-ups and scale-ups.

But creating a culture that sparks and fosters innovation does not happen purely because there is a lot of goodwill from people and organisations who want to see local entrepreneurs do well.

There is a lot we need to get right if people with true global potential are to emerge from Belfast's melting pot.

It was something that was brought home to me during a recent visit to the hub by American entrepreneur Bo Brustkern, chief executive of leading fintech events company LendIt Fintech, who spoke with members about building a meaningful community.

Staff at the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub
Staff at the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub

Bo's presentation gave both his blueprint for a successful community and an insightful look at Belfast's strengths and weaknesses from a US fintech point of view.

The strengths he referenced in our local ecosystem were the great access to early stage funding in NI, the proliferation of start-up programmes and accelerators, good co-working space options and established clusters of expertise.

He also acknowledged our deep pool of tech development resources and the fact that our people are generally less expensive than big cities like London and are often hungry to prove themselves.

Sign In

But Bo didn't pull his punches in highlighting our weaknesses too.

The first thing he called out was that we are still guilty of letting too many bad ideas get off the ground.

That might sound harsh, but perhaps in hoping to stimulate the ecosystem some ideas have found funding and support when there really is no market demand for them.

I think that has started to change, but its true that founders need mentors around them to stop them to make sure they have researched their market before rushing concepts through.

Bo's view is that it's still difficult to access true start-up expertise and mentors in Northern Ireland, because there are fewer people who have been through the start-up journey and grown companies who want to advise those in the midst of the process.

And for all the successes this part of the world has had, he believed that the start-up ecosystem is not very joined up and start-ups still find it difficult to access later stage funding of more than £1m.

Staff at the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub
Staff at the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub

Again, I think this is changing as many of our most successful start-ups know we have a small local addressable market and are already tapping into markets outside of NI.

Most of these weaknesses can be overcome by creating an even stronger tech community and as an active player in the global fintech world I was keen to hear Bo's view on what the Belfast community can do to take us up a level.

Bo boiled it down to four things that really matter if Belfast is to be unique and not a cookie cutter version of somewhere else: connections, culture, vibe and failure.

Recommending we build connections is perhaps an obvious place to start but he was talking about the right connections, the ones that matter to your sector, not just building up a bank of contacts for the sake of it.

Similarly, when it comes to culture, he recommends a culture of success: not accepting low standards, paying close attention to results, engendering strong accountability and responsibility for work, fostering trust and not being afraid of conflict if it gets results.

Bo's strongest view was that vibe matters and that we need to amplify what's good.

Analysis: David Allister
Analysis: David Allister

Being safe is a surefire way to be last, so he believes in promoting radical thinkers, the sort of people on the edge who will challenge the norm.

In his mind these can just as easily be artists or developers, creative people who seek weirdness and beauty in what they are doing.

This, said Bo, is something everyone will respond to one way or another.

You might not think of a bank as the sort of organisation that would actively seek out people who are weird, radical thinkers.

But it is clear that our ecosystem needs to be more open and inclusive, encouraging knowledge sharing right across the city.

His other big point was that we need to change our attitude to failure. The benefits of success always outweigh the consequences of failure and we have to create the opportunity for our entrepreneurs to fail and fail big if that's what it takes to get to the business or idea that is really going to take off.

Bo Brustkern
Bo Brustkern

We need to accept that sometimes good business ideas fail for a multitude of reasons.

The innovators behind them should not be stopped from dusting themselves off and going again with the lessons they've learned fresh in their minds.

Our ecosystem is flourishing but maybe there is more we could be doing to really get the best out of our talented start-ups.

Belfast Telegraph