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How Belfast became one of the UK's hottest tech hubs

·5 min read
Belfast city centre - Nigel Andrews/iStockphoto
Belfast city centre - Nigel Andrews/iStockphoto

The Belfast docks were once home to a curious mixture of tourists visiting the site of the Titanic’s construction, dockworkers and start-up founders hoping to create the next billion-dollar business.

Today, the tourist attractions are closed and you may only see a handful of entrepreneurs commuting along the River Lagan.

A short stroll from the now-empty slipways where the Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic were built is a new technology hub that’s still home to some of the world’s largest technology businesses as well as a number of fledgling companies hoping to make it big.

“Back in 2004, there were portakabins down here,” says Terry Canning, whose business CattleEye is headquartered in the area and has stayed open during lockdown. “They've since built this entire building. The growth has been amazing.”

Despite the challenges from coronavirus – or perhaps because of it – Belfast is fast becoming one of the UK’s most promising new technology hubs, with the city’s engineers growing increasingly entrepreneurial and using their knowledge of medicine, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity to start new businesses.

Research published by Government-backed Tech Nation shows that Belfast has one of the best chances of becoming a new start-up hub thanks to its almost-ideal ratio of 54pc seed stage businesses, 32pc early growth companies and 14pc late stage start-ups.

Technology companies in Northern Ireland also had a record year for funding, bringing in £45.6m in investment in 2020. This came as no surprise to those working in Belfast’s technology sector who have observed a rapid expansion in recent years.

Engineer Paul McBride retrained as a developer after searching on Google for “well-paid jobs in Belfast.” He now runs the WeCode NI job board and has observed a spike in demand for engineering roles.

“Now over half my friends work in the tech sector. There has been a huge explosion of that kind of stuff here,” he says.

The Titanic slipway is next to a new technology hub in Belfast - Getty Images Europe 
The Titanic slipway is next to a new technology hub in Belfast - Getty Images Europe

Despite this, Belfast faces a struggle to put its start-ups on the map. “No-one is there,” says one London venture capitalist when asked who the most important technology executives in Belfast are.

Local investors disagree. They point to fast-growing sectors such as cybersecurity, medical technology and finance apps as a promising mix of businesses for the area.

The city also stands to benefit from an outflow of talent from London because of the pandemic as engineers seek cheaper cities to live in that place them next to the sea and Northern Ireland's rural areas.

Belfast's lower living costs could see the city become a new home for technology employees planning to work remotely beyond the current lockdown.

“I've been in the venture community in Northern Ireland since 1996 so I'm blessed or cursed with having seen just how bad it was,” says Hal Wilson, the head of Belfast’s most prominent venture capital fund Techstart Ventures.

Businesses like Axial3D represent some of the city’s best hopes to become so-called “unicorns,” start-ups that are worth at least $1bn (£731m).

The start-up, based in another Belfast technology cluster of the Ormeau Baths area, has developed software that can convert medical images into 3D models that surgeons can print out to better understand a patient’s body.

“Giving them a physical print of a patient's anatomy makes it much easier to conceptualise and understand what's going on,” says co-founder Daniel Crawford.

A 3D printed scan of a patient's body made by Axial3D - Axial3D
A 3D printed scan of a patient's body made by Axial3D - Axial3D

Belfast’s relatively small pool of local venture capital funding helped encourage the business to look overseas for growth. “Needing to step out of your comfort zone to get funding has helped us think globally,” Crawford says. Around 30pc of its revenues now come from the US.

Canning’s business CattleEye is another budding unicorn. He’s using AI software to help farmers monitor their cows, indicating to supermarkets how active they are.

“We use a simple security camera. We run these neural networks that have been trained to find a cow, identify her and give her a score that tells you how well she walks,” he says.

CattleEye helps farmers to automatically monitor their cows - Tom Stoddart/Getty Images
CattleEye helps farmers to automatically monitor their cows - Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Being in the same city as Queen's University Belfast gives these start-ups a steady pipeline of AI and medical experts to hire, but many graduates are still choosing to work for US companies in their Belfast offices.

“They've got benefits which are very, very hard for start-ups to match,” Wilson says. Many local start-ups simply can’t afford to compete with businesses such as IBM and Microsoft, which is opening a new cybersecurity centre in the city.

That has led to an imbalance in the Belfast technology sector, with more jobs than engineers to fill them. “You can jump from job to job and keep doubling your salary if you wanted to,” McBride says.

The largest problem facing Belfast’s investors is encouraging people to leave their jobs to create new companies.

Wilson has been running a grant scheme that hands out thousands of pounds in funding in an attempt to convince well-paid engineers to make the leap. “I don't think they realise just how low a risk it is for them to have a go,” he says.

The pandemic has seen a rise in the number of budding entrepreneurs in the city, with Wilson seeing grant applicants almost double.

Local entrepreneurs take pride in Belfast’s continued tech boom and are hopeful that efforts like start-up grants could encourage a new wave of businesses, shifting Belfast away from an over-reliance on foreign companies and ushering in an exciting home-grown start-up scene.