Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Announcing Norman’s News…

Thank you to everyone who has been reading and following Norman’s Blog here on NISP CONNECT.

Because of its focus on STEM-in-business and generally good news, this has a decent following on web and in the Belfast Newsletter in print. Starting in September, the Park is launching a new blog under the title, Norman’s News.

Along with being the new home for Norman’s Newsletter column, Inside Innovation, this blog is for you, the tenants and stakeholders of the Park, or others, to submit articles in a similar vein for the blog. They can be about science, about Northern Ireland, about anything really but I really think we should all be telling our stories to offset the other ones that make the headlines!

Please send all submissions to and do update your bookmarks!


Testing… Testing

We all appreciate its importance when the proverbial has hit the fan. Software Testing and Quality Assurance that is. Just ask the organisers of the London Olympics whose online ticketing system has been far from Gold Standard or BAA whose new baggage handling system at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 failed to get off the ground during thenew building’s much heralded opening.

While these high profile examples help prove the case, it is clear that the importance of software quality assurance globally has never been greater. Industry research proves it is increasingly a major differentiator in the global software and technology industries. Not surprising perhaps when both quality and security of technology is now not only business critical but can often be life critical.

At a time when there is a growing trend in software development towards low cost regions such as China and India, there is a need to add value and compete on another level than price alone. Quality Assurance does just that. The question is can NI, with leading edge technology clusters in areas such as digital media, financial software, telecoms and embedded systems get a bigger slice of the global software pie through a focus on Quality?

I for one think the answer is yes and in particular if we all pull together in the same direction. I was delighted to see the newly launched initiative by a group of 20 companies in Northern Ireland supported by Invest NI, DELNI and Momentum, who have come together to encourage people to consider a career in software quality assurance, pledging to create hundreds of jobs between them in this field in the next few years. Among them are global players such as Openwave, Deloitte, Allstate, NYSE, Liberty IT as well as SQS and Navinet, both based at the Science Park.

According to local ICT trade association Momentum, there’s a global shortage of software testers; a shortage which is due partly to a growing emphasis on quality within the international software industry.The other factor is that for some unexplained reason software testing and quality assurance has been seen as the poor relation to software development. Traditionally software testing was excluded from most academic courses here, and unlike software development there were no corresponding professional pathways for software testing. Typically it has been left to individual companies to train their own people in the necessary software testing skills. But that is now changing and software testing is raising its game to emphasise the many and varied career paths available.

Part of the new initiative announced recently includes the creation of a Software Testers Academy to provide graduates with the skills and experience required to take up opportunities in the IT industry. This type of response demonstrates how effective a partnership approach between government, industry and the further education sector can be and hopefully will bear some fruit for the local industry.

I see two major advantages for NI plc in targeting this area. Not only is there massive potential to immediately serve the software testing needs of the international markets of business software, finance, connected health and media but if this campaign promotes and embeds an ethos of quality assurance in our very own software output, then this can provide additional strategic advantage to NI software houses wishing to compete globally.

Place your bets on KETs

The European Commission’s High Level Expert group on key emerging technologies (KETs) has recently identified six key areas of technology that are worth US$832bn today but could be worth US$1,282bn by 2015. They believe these big technology bets will be at the core of future consumer electronics devices, healthcare, transport and communication solutions and should be a core focus for our scientists and manufacturing industries.

KETs are defined as knowledge and capital-intensive technologies associated with high R&D intensity and rapid integrated innovation cycles, high capital expenditure and highly-skilled employment. Mastery of KETs is a strategic priority, to ensure Europe-based companies can produce the innovative products of the future.

Combinations of KETs are embedded at the core of most advanced products. For example, an electric car is a combination of advanced materials for batteries, microelectronics components for power electronics in order to reduce the weight of the car, photonics for low consumption lighting, industrial biotechnologies for low friction tyres and advanced manufacturing systems to produce vehicles at a competitive cost.

According to this Group Europe, once the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, hosts a manufacturing base built upon a long-established engineering tradition, a strong R&D capacity backed by strong universities and the ability of industry to adapt to technological progress and to produce high quality products with global potential.

Today the same manufacturing industry provides technologies and solutions which are needed to respond to major challenges of the 21st century, including, climate change, resource and energy efficiency, security, an ageing society and sustainable mobility. Not surprisingly the market is highly competitive and technologies are typically created within a business environment, where SMEs can play an important role, especially by providing inputs and innovative solutions to global companies. Local companies should take note.

Against this background, the major opportunity areas identified include nanotechnology, photonics, industrial biotech, advanced materials and advanced manufacturing systems. By way of illustration of the potential, the EU says micro and nanoelectronics is a US$250bn industry that could be worth US$300bn by 2015, while nanotechnology is a €12bn industry with the potential to grow at 16pc a year to reach US$27bn by 2015. Advanced materials, including new energy sources such as advanced batteries, photovoltaics, gas turbines and solid state lighting, are tipped to grow 6pc a year to become a €150bn market in 2015. Industrial biotechnology – uses enzymes and micro-organisms to make bio-based products in sectors as diverse as chemicals, food and feed, healthcare, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles and bioenergy. The EU identified that this technology could grow from US$90bn to become a US$125bn market by 2015. Advanced manufacturing systems, including semiconductors, has been identified as an area that will grow 5pc year on year to become a US$200bn industry.

Regular readers of this column may have heard me comment on the need to bridge the ‘Valley of Death’ – essentially the gulf between identifying new technologies and successfully commercialising them. They have identified a three-pillar approach to a successful crossing which I would certainly agree with. The first stage ‘Technological Research’ consists of taking advantage of scientific excellence in transforming the ideas arising from fundamental research into technologies competitive at world level and this is where the work of the Science Park and our partners in the Universities is critical.

The second stage ‘Product Demonstration’ will allow for the use and exploitation of KETs on European soil to make innovative and performing products and solutions competitive at world level.
And the third stage, ‘Competitive Manufacturing’, should create European manufacturing ecosystems for globally competitive products and industries to compete with our Asian and US rivals.

By focusing on these key stages of the innovation chain, the hope is to trigger a virtuous cycle, from knowledge generation to market flow with feedback from the market to knowledge generation support, thereby strengthening economic development. It is encouraging to know that it is broadly this same model that is being followed here in Northern Ireland. We just need to place our bets as best we can but yet be flexible enough to switch assured we have the basic science and learning skills in place.

US connections

Sitting in St Cedma’s Parish Church, Larne, for a family wedding on a glorious July day this year and waiting for the bride to enter, late as is the tradition, my eye was drawn to one of the beautiful stained glass windows. I should explain before I go any further that this little church has an ancient and interesting thousand year history.This building dates from 1350 and so is the second oldest building in continuous use in Co Antrim. Anyway, the window in question is dedicated to the Houston family and I realised, from a little internet surfing on smart phone, that this could well be the same family as spawned Sam Houston of Texan fame and which created an early electrical engineering firm, Thompson-Houston, in the mid-1800s. As one internet wag has it, the first words from the moon were Ulster Scots; “Houston, the eagle has landed!” That firm through merger and take-over survives within global corporations such as GE, Thales and Alsthom. Marking the family is great, of course, but often I think we hide our great Ulster engineering lights, not just under bushels but under mountains.
Of course we are infamous as a people for looking back; so at least I should attempt to set the record straight, as far as entrepreneurial activity is concerned. Today we aim to export our ideas with added value, not just our people, and a few nuggets which might interest are:
The President of the US has at his disposal, in the White House and in Airforce 1 and hopefully never to be used, the latest in portable defibrillators from Northern Ireland from a graduate company of the Science Park in east Belfast, that has direct lineage to Frank Pantridge, the Ulster inventor of the device.
In west Belfast, another company, that owes its technology to astronomy and the search for exo-planets, has developed laser-based microscopes that are used at Harvard Medical School directly to observe the antics of the chromosomes inside living cells. I regret that the science park was too young to have helped that company get going from its start as a University spin-out but delighted none the less to report that its founder is often with us as he is getting his second creation into the market place.
In counties Antrim, Armagh and Down several pharmaceutical firms have been developed from scratch that today each employ hundreds (in one case thousands) of US workers to claim a piece of that lucrative but notoriously difficult market place. I love the idea that some of the sheep around Lough Neagh that you might spot from the plane and among the highest value-adding workers in Northern Ireland.
From the west of Ulster, Terrex helps keep the miners of the world supplied with the best of kit to keep us all supplied with our never-ending demand for the earth’s resources.
Meanwhile, a Ballymena business has developed from one-of-many coach builders into a near-unique,globally-ranked provider of rapid transit systems, supplying among other cities, Las Vegas. The StreetCars float past little St Cedma’s on their way to the port, probably not even pausing to think that down below is a record of just how long we’ve been at the game of engineering entrepreneurship. This is so much more important and of note than the few hundred kids who haven’t yet realised that we have traditions older and more fulfilling than recreational rioting in July.