Northern Ireland tipped to be top UK tech hub

Invest Northern Ireland claims a highly skilled and flexible workforce makes the region a strong competitor to more established UK tech centres
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

Northern Ireland is making a name for itself as an emerging UK technology hub.

Invest Northern Ireland (Invest NI), the regional economic development agency, is billing the region as a prime destination for technology and financial services, and is working to increase already healthy investment. Technology firms based locally are also praising the skills available.

According to the latest figures from UK skills agency e-Skills, Northern Ireland has around 15,000 employees working in the techology sector. Software giant SAP has its only UK research facility in the region, while BT, Cisco, Citigroup and Nortel are other big players with a presence.

Bill Montgomery, director of international investment for Invest NI, said: "I think we're better placed than a lot of regions."

In February, Northern Ireland made Gartner's top 30 locations for offshore services, majoring in education, infrastructure, language, globalisation maturity and security and privacy. Recent Financial Times research found there are more software development centres in Northern Ireland than England. The region is also top in the UK for inward investment in financial services software development, attracting 35 percent of all projects in the past five years.

Reflecting growing interest from India, Invest NI opened an office in Bangalore in February, adding to its bases in Brussels, Dublin and London. Indian companies Firstsource, HCL, Polaris and Tech Mahindra have all opened offices in Northern Ireland.

Invest NI claims value for money, strong skills and a flexible workforce that cannot be matched elsewhere in the UK are reasons why companies should invest in Northern Ireland rather than in other UK technology hubs, such as Reading or Cambridge.

Northern Ireland is one of the best-performing regions as regards attainment at GCSE and A-level, while its two universities both have strong technology reputations. According to Invest NI, more than 900 technology graduates emerge from the University of Ulster and Queen's University in Belfast each year.

The chair of telecommunications engineering at the University of Ulster, professor Gerard Parr, told silicon.com: "We really have a huge responsibility in terms of local economic development. Courses are embedded in the needs of industry."

Conor Quinn, business development executive at Queen's University's Institute of Electronics, Communication and Information Technology (ECIT), said: "We have a very strong economic remit. Our mission is really about world-class research expertise."

ECIT hosts technology companies, such as TDK, and also provides services to boost the research capabilities of big names such as BT, Nortel, QinetiQ and SAP.

Speaking to Northern Irish technology companies, of which there are more than 600, it is clear they feel that the Northern Irish workforce offers benefits to technology companies that other regions' workforces cannot.

Michael Crossey, vice president of marketing at mobile company Aepona, said: "One of the strengths of Northern Ireland is it has a very highly educated workforce."

Both Crossey and Matt Halligan, managing director of mobile-software development company Openwave's Belfast development centre, said a strong team ethic is a feature of the local workforce.

Halligan, who has overseen the development of two of Openwave's most recently shipped products in Belfast, added: "The economy, at least from an IT perspective, is booming."

Northern Ireland's small size has been portrayed by some as a limiting factor, but others see it as an advantage. As the University of Ulster's Parr pointed out: "Because Northern Ireland is a very small place, it's very easy to manage."

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