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Belfast: Signs of a tech heartbeat

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:21 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

What do you think of when you hear the name Belfast? A battered city with high unemployment still riven by sectarian divisions? Or a new economy powerhouse, where movie stars shooting at the city's new film studios rub shoulders with hi-tech entrepreneurs in the city's fashionable Titanic Quarter?

The first view is unfair, the second perhaps just a little too rosy. But after 24 hours spent meeting many of those trying to give Belfast a brighter future I've certainly had my perceptions changed.

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Since I started looking into the Belfast tech scene a few weeks back, I've been put in touch with dozens of smart people and clever companies eager to tell the world that this city is on the up. We've been broadcasting this morning from the small premises of Intelesens, almost on the runway of the George Best airport.

This is a company making what it bills as "the world's first intelligent wearable vital signs monitor". It's a neat piece of kit that allows doctors to monitor a patient even, as the chief executive Michael Caulfield put it to me, "when you're away on a fishing trip in Donegal."

Chart showing Rory Cellan-Jones' heartbeat


I've been wearing one of the sensors this morning - it sends a read-out via the phone network to a computer and you'll be relieved to hear that my heart is beating healthily.

But let's check up on some of Northern Ireland's vital signs. One huge advantage is its education system.The schools have very high standards and the universities, which have always produced plenty of skilled graduates, are now also generating a number of start-up businesses where they can work.

Intelesens is the result of some ground-breaking research at the University of Ulster's bio-mechanical engineering department - and at least one recent graduate from the university has been taken on by the company. That's a healthy cycle.

Another good sign is that people who left to make their way abroad are returning to start new businesses. We met Greg Maguire, who has spent the last decade or so in California working as an animator on movies from Harry Potter to Avatar. He's now come home to set up Zoogloo, an animation business that will draw on the skills of what's increasingly a media city.

Greg says that after coming through the troubles and then a period of reconciliation, the city is now ready for regeneration - and he wants to be a part of it. "It's a fantastic place to be right now,"he told me, "to me it feels likes San Francisco was before the dotcom boom."

Titanic Quarter, Belfast


Then there's Steve Orr who has returned from San Diego, where he started a successful technology business. He now runs the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast's Titanic Quarter in the docks where the doomed liner was built a century ago. When I suggested it was an unfortunate name for a place meant to symbolise the refloating of Belfast as an industrial centre, he came up with the old line "well, she was alright leaving us."

With the Belfast humour comes a serious point about the city's industrial heritage and the skills still present here: "The potential is huge - we have a history of being able to invent and discover and create and that's never left us."

I've met plenty of other inspiring businesses. There are established firms like Lagan Technologies which aims to be a world leader in software that allows governments to interact better with citizens. There are small start-ups like Speechbubble, providing businesses with multilingual presentation tools. TAnd tere are early stage research-based firms like Sophia Search, which is trying to help organisations mine vast quantities of data to unlock its meaning and value.

While the city is alive with possibilities, businesses are desperately short of one thing - capital. One recently-formed Belfast angel network proudly boasts that it's already helped to inject £2m into early stage businesses here. If you bandied around that kind of sum in any other hi-tech centre, people might assume you were talking about the taxi budget.

I popped into a networking evening at the Science Park to find a lively crowd discussing opportunities in the mobile world. At a similar event In London the chatter would have been fuelled by plenty of alcohol - here discussions took place over cups of tea. They know there is plenty of potential here but they'll wait until it is realised before cracking open the champagne.


  • Comment number 1.

    These reports about regional ambition are very encouraging and there is a real sense (not for the first time it has to be said) that Britain and indeed Europe are leading the world in technological innovation on many fronts. Silicon Valley, whilst far from a busted flush, is loosening its grip a bit and clusters of excellence are emerging as we've seen in Belfast and Dundee.

    Of course, we have been here before (1998-2000) and one of the challenges for the UK tech industry is getting the acknowledgement and support that it deserves from Government and from the media so that the industry and the associated jobs remain here. Celebrating our successes, as these regional reports do, goes a long way to creating the perpetual motion that is so important to the tech sector.

    Lagan Technologies, referenced in this blog, is an interesting case. It is Belfast-based and at the cutting edge of government to citizen technology (essentially enabling government to make itself accessible to citizen requests and deliver better, faster service via the phone, web, mobile app, Twitter, other social networking platforms, etc). Lagan is the global leader in its space and is building a highly successful business globally, working with the likes of the Cities of San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and 200 other national, regional and local governments worldwide.

    Global leadership is a major achievement and there are many other examples throughout the UK of earlier stage companies that are developing world class technologies. Nurturing this growth is where the real value of this industry and its contribution to the UK economy lies. We can be certain of one thing: what we don't celebrate and support domestically won't escape the eye of international businesses anxious to acquire new talent and new technologies. Supporting UK businesses to commercialise their innovations and remain in the UK is the really pressing challenge for the UK tech industry. A shortage of talent or ideas isn't.

  • Comment number 2.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "What do you think of when you hear the name Belfast?"

    Boney M??

    "While the city is alive with possibilities, businesses are desperately short of one thing - capital."

    hm, sounds like another good reason why Belfast, along with the rest of Northern Ireland, ought to vote with their feet to seek integration with the Republic of Ireland (and thus find themselves better placed in the EU than they ever will if they remain part of the UK).

  • Comment number 3.

    We have world leading technology companies like ARM, Imagination Technologies Ltd, XMOS; what we struggle in UK is turning companies in to Global leaders. We need to focus on growing business trade in Asia, Brazil. One thing we lack is a UK Brand; we need Businesses, Politicians, Unions, etc is spread the UK Brand for high technology, high Quality products in Asia, etc.

  • Comment number 4.

    @jr4412 I really don't think the south would have us, we would need need an all Ireland referendum, would you want to bolt a country full of dole spongers and public sector workers on to your already struggling economy?

    Joining the republic would be awesome, but I don't think they would want it and we can't force it on them.


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