Archive for June 15th, 2009|Daily archive page

Talking about us

Lots of people want to see Northern Ireland companies grow and succeed. But how do you translate goodwill into firm actions? If smaller, private investors/ex-pats wanted to help support local start ups, how do they go about doing that? How can NI best support the next generation wantrepreneur?

These questions, and more besides, were part of an email conversation going backwards and forwards this week. Involved in the conversation were some NI-born hi-tech and highly successful entrepreneurs now living abroad, and a few local people involved in local tech and innovation – here’s a snapshot of what things look like from their perspective…

Ex-pat: “Over the past decade in general, and the last two years in particular, I’ve noticed – from my little perch on this side of the pond – that there is considerable talent of, and opportunity for, technology entrepreneurs from NI. And there is a growing NI diaspora that wants to reach out and grab those entrepreneurs by the scuff of their necks and throw them onto the world stage.

“I’ve also noticed that, without clear vision and bold leadership, many brilliant opportunities are left fallow, in many cases simply because it is not clear how to progress those opportunities. In the past six months I’ve personally seen some world-class opportunities that “just don’t fit” into a standard envelope, requiring cross functional this, or cross organization that, or didn’t have the right boxes ticked.

“NI is just too small to waste opportunities like this, or wait while the window closes. May I humbly suggest that there is a crying need for a steering committee (no, not a “steering committee”) that can simply guide these opportunities into the right hands? Or see across a number of opportunities and raise awareness, divert resources, or align priorities?”

One local expert: “A recent survey has identified Northern Ireland as a leading FDI region for software investment – the story was barely picked up in the local press – News Letter was the only one I saw. BBC and Radio Ulster in particular still after all these years give a hallowed position to Agriculture news – technology appears to be “threatening” or “weird” often “funny”. Yet there are people within [the media] with a good understanding of the potential impact on our economy.”

Another ex-pat: “Absolutely, for a small province which exported entrepreneursip to so many parts of the world for so long, it’s about time that more/ some of it started to grow back at the original base. Having just started trying to interact with some of the venture base in the North coming from outside, it isn’t awe inspiring.”

The email trail ended by highlighting four actions to help grow innovative hi-tech companies.


  • If NI was a product, and you were the Product Manager, how would you launch it? We need a value proposition and a Go-To-Market plan for NI technology and companies, and a strategic marketing plan to position NI to beat the competition. Form a product launch team to reintroduce NI to the world stage.
  • Reach out to the diaspora. Invite them in. Listen to them.
  • Have the funding industry pitch to entrepreneurs and startups, make it a buyers’ marker. Get some real operational experience into the industry – if you haven’t run the operations of a big ($100M+) successful company, you can’t be judging those that are trying to.
  • Take three of the most likely NI technology companies and PROMOTE them in the US for the next 100 days. Put everything behind these three (as opposed to spreading funds to thinly over a great number) and bet big.

How do these sound to you? If you are into local tech and innovation, take these thoughts on board and begin your own conversations and email trails. What’s the best way for NI to raise awareness, divert resources, align priorities? Where do we go from here?


Silicon Valley coming to Belfast

Northern Ireland Science Park recently had the great pleasure of entertaining David Kirk – one of Northern Ireland’s most successful Tech Exiles. David is keen to share his experiences with local innovators and entrepreneurs. This individual contribution will go a long way towards transforming ideas into commercial reality.

Originally from South Belfast, he has spent over 30 years in software and telecommunications – holding top positions at American Online (where he led the world-wide launch of their online service), and he was also SVP at Cisco Systems, where he managed their core software development. But more importantly, David is also a member of the Irish Technology Advisory Group (ITLG) – a group of Irish and Irish American senior executives based in Silicon Valley. This is group of successful people want to help the island of Ireland address the challenges of embracing new technology opportunities. They aim to ensure that Ireland remains a strategic area of investment and opportunity for US technology companies.

David now lives in California, but has not forgotten his Northern Ireland roots and he wants to give back to the local business community and to offer help to bring local tech companies to market.

A few weeks ago David came over to Belfast (at his own expense) where he led an intensive five-day programme (or bootcamp) to prepare a number of Northern Ireland’s most exciting innovation start-ups and entrepreneurs for engagement with venture capitalists. He took a number of local companies through the business of venture capital, the elevator pitch, investment pitch and development of a strategic business plan.

David was hugely complimentary about the innovative ideas he saw and also the calibre of the entrepreneurs taking them forward. It is rare enough for people of David’s calibre to offer support (free of charge!), but it is invaluable for participating companies whenever it happens.

The great news is that David Kirk and ITLG will be coming back to Northern Ireland, and when they do it will be to seek out the very best concepts from our local innovators. The ITLG event – ‘Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland’ – is being held at Queen’s University Belfast between 20th-22nd October and it is already creating buzz among local tech professionals. The ITLG are committed to growing companies in Ireland north and south and part of the event is open to Northern Irish technology companies some of which will pitch their investment opportunities to Silicon Valley’s finest. Anyone interested should log on to and get the ball rolling. The ITLG are a pragmatic organization and have extended their deadline till June 12. So my advice to any local wantrepreneur is get your act together and get that outline business plan in asap.

Companies from a range of technology areas will be represented at the event, including Software, Hardware, Digital Media and Clean/Green Tech. By the end of June the ITLG will know which 30 companies it wants to invite to submit a detailed business plan. The 12 finalists will then be announced in August and the pitch event will take place in October as a key part of the ITLG event. Following this, a few companies will be selected for recognition at its gala / awards event to be held in the spring of 2010 at Stanford University in California.

It is interesting to note that the2008 recipient of the ITLG/ Irish Times Innovation Award, Changing Worlds, drew significant attention from the telecommunications industry and was subsequently acquired by St. Louis-based Amdocs for $60 million. Even more reason for our local innovators to get their applications in for what promises to be a fantastic opportunity to put NI firmly on the Silicon Valley radar.

A Manifesto for Europe

Polling for the European elections is just nine days away. The electoral cycle tests the health of European democracy: will participation levels be up or down; is the public mood swinging to the left or to the right? The perennial worry is that voter turnouts continue to fall, but political parties and agencies like the Electoral Commission continue to come up new and innovative ways to engage people.

At the moment, various party political manifestos are being launched – but they’re not the only manifestos in town. There is another vision for engagement with Europe which we should consider.

Connected Health is the innovation that is transforming healthcare delivery across the US and Europe. At its most basic, Connected Health is ‘the use of networked technologies to reduce costs and enhance quality’ (all of this is shaped/informed by regional patient needs etc). It is a model which aims to deliver more for less – to be more efficient while at the same time empowering patients and maximising safety and wellbeing.

Connected Health answers the challenge of what to do about spiralling costs for healthcare delivered through the established, traditional system. Some predict that, trends being what they are in the realm of public health, spending on healthcare across the EU overall could triple by the year 2060. How do we avoid such a punishing burden on the taxpayer?

And that is not all. Governments across Europe are now faced with the prospect of economic growth falling into negative territory. Instead of investing in services and in struggling industries, governments are being forced to balance budgets by raising taxes, cutting costs and rationalising services.

So there’s a lot riding on the success of Connected Health – if it succeeds it improves healthcare systems, empowers patients and relieves some of the strain on the public exchequer. If it succeeds it will be the transformational model that has far-reaching implications for the UK and our European neighbours.

But what has this got to do with Northern Ireland?

Well, the First European Connected Health Leadership Summit – hosted by the European Connected Health Campus (ECHCampus), a new tenant at the Science Park – was held in Belfast earlier this month. Over 120 leaders in Connected Health – experts in commercial, clinical, academic and governmental spheres – flew in for the two-day conference from across Europe and the US. It was ‘designed to look at the emergent market, ask the big questions, and bring together the business brainpower to provide direction’.

The result of all these collective efforts was the ‘A Manifesto for Connected Health’ – a framework for priorities to take the concept forward at ECHCampus up to 2011. (Read about it here

Among the thinkers on board was Ilias Iakovidis from the European Commission. He told us that information networks within health delivery are releasing tens of million so pounds in efficiencies. With such vast gains to be had, e-health is emerging as the industry of the moment. It is the EU’s fastest growing industry of sector and is estimated to stand at €20 billion or 2% of health expenditure. People from Northern Ireland – at the ECHCampus and elsewhere – are contributing to innovation and leadership within this most vital of industries.

While we may have to wait until after June 4 for the psephologists to tell us about the health of European democracy, the First European Connected Health Leadership Summit held in Belfast this year told us much that’s exciting and innovative about European health.

So political parties were not the only ones to launch their manifestos for Europe. I would urge you to consider the ‘Manifesto for Connected Health’. It contains a vision that puts us at the heart of a truly innovative European industry. I look forward to its implementation

Global Opportunity

It’s 35 years since I served as rookie “scientific advisor” on a Cambridge University expedition to the Strup Glacier in northern Norway. Actually we were all pretty inexperienced and made not a few errors. But not in doubt, however, was the degree to which the Strup Glacier had receded since the Second World War (when the Lyngen Peninsula was the scene of considerable derring-do in the Artic campaigns between Allies and Axis powers). Our work was but one point of many on the graphs of climatologists as they tried to make sense of what is now known as Global Warming.

We did reveal an anomaly; the ice was receding but snow patches, the precursors of glaciers, were growing. This and many other complexities have dogged the subject’s clarity to the world at large. The Strup Glacier ceased its recession in the 1990s but is now contracting again, but slowly. It’s now understood that the underlying summer ice melt from elevated temperatures is compensated by higher level of winter precipitation from the warmer Atlantic Westerlies, mostly in the form of perfect powder for skiing. The entrepreneurial Norwegians have built a very high-class resort and now market this area as a premier destination. A bit of a difference from my day where we even had to dredge the glacier melt-water to make level platforms on which to put the tents! Global Warming isn’t necessarily all bad, though I read that even so, Norway expects to lose 98% of its glaciers by the end of the century.

The same effect, but without the precipitation offset, is occurring in lower latitude glaciers and just this month it was reported that Bolivia had just lost one of its premier glacier skiing locations. For them and others around the world though, the situation is more serious than a loss of tourist income, because the glaciers are often the primary source of fresh water, throughout the year, in the lower valleys. Without them they face summer droughts, perhaps sufficient to render large areas uninhabitable. Think of that, the next time you complain about the rain!

The same news bulletin had a report from the World Wildlife Fund, claiming that a key set of coral reefs, the breeding ground for the fish on which many depend, were in imminent, but not irreversible, danger of being lost. The culprit this time being the acidification of the oceans by Carbon Dioxide.

These reports set in context for me an announcement I heard from DETI Minister, Arlene Foster, at the 20th anniversary dinner for Questor. (Questor is Queen’s University’s environmental research club, one of the University’s great industry-academe success stories, founded on and supported by the work of the US National Science Foundation and Invest NI.) Minister Foster informed the audience that the findings of a study on low-carbon energy production for Northern Ireland, soon to be published, would confirm the work of MATRIX, Northern Ireland’s Science Industry Panel. The findings also showed its potential for innovation and production to be very high. It was likely therefore to be one of the future focuses for our economic future.

I think this is great news – water, land and energy, all without the guilt that anyone else has had to pay for it. It points to a great future. Let’s go for it!