Paddy Graham: Why Northern Ireland can compete for a slice of the lucrative tech sector pie
Every nation in the world is currently trying to work out what the global economy will look like in the future and how they can claim a place in it.
While there's only so much that can be predicted with any certainty, it seems clear that technology-based companies are set to play an increasingly important role in most major economies. Digital technologies underpin modern business and so it stands to reason this industry will be critical to Northern Ireland's economic success.
Northern Ireland's rich history of entrepreneurship is at the core of its now burgeoning tech sector, positioning the region as a future global hub for technological innovation. A report earlier this year by entrepreneurial network Tech Nation estimated there are now over 1,500 digital tech businesses in Northern Ireland employing over 60,000 people in Belfast alone.
As a city, Belfast is quickly catching up with major international players as the Tech Nation report found that Belfast was now one of the best cities in the UK to work in technology, a short second behind London.
At BGF we are sector-agnostic, we look at the quality of a company's products and services, its growth potential and its management team. We have invested in every traditional industry you could think of, from heavy manufacturing to food and drink, construction materials to oil and gas. But we definitely see big opportunities for Northern Ireland in the tech, software and digital space.
Northern Ireland has long been a hub of innovation and we have of course already seen a number of tech firms emerge who are producing cutting edge technology or game changing software. Companies like First Derivatives - who BGF has a partnership with - Kainos, Novosco and Neueda have grown to become sector leaders as well as major employers.
What's encouraging is that there is now a new generation following them, raising finance and building world-class products and teams.
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For example, in BGF's portfolio we have AuditComply, an earlier stage software business based in Belfast. The business provides an enterprise risk management platform to support audit and inspection processes within a wide range of business. Since our investment in late 2017 the business has grown steadily and has delivered some impressive client wins.
To ensure more of these sorts of companies come through we need to make sure high potential early stage businesses are supported in their attempts to scale up. BGF doesn't solely fund start-ups but we want to co-invest with the current pool of early stage investors in the market.
Last month, Catalyst released figures that showed around £30m is invested into these companies each year. It's estimated this needs to be at least £90m with the support of external sources.
And with Belfast regularly featuring in lists of the top UK cities to launch a start-up, it's clear the innovation infrastructure, talent pool and funding is all in place to enable these rapidly scalable companies to emerge - whether that's in fintech, e-commerce, gaming, oil and gas tech or any other digital sector.
Make no mistake, every country is trying to position itself to benefit from the challenges and opportunities of technological change. But if we take a collaborative approach, invest in development of in-demand skills and prioritise innovation, there's no reason Northern Ireland-based companies can't compete for a slice of what is clearly a very lucrative pie.