The secret behind Northern Ireland’s fintech success
With a centuries-old reputation for engineering excellence, internationally respected legal and financial services sectors, and a celebrated agriculture and food and drink heritage, Northern Ireland is most often associated with deeply rooted traditional industries and academic endeavours. However, a quick look at its portfolio of recent inward investments and success stories will tell you that this region has its sights set firmly on the future.
For years now, Northern Ireland has been quietly cultivating a vibrant cluster of start-ups, academic spin-outs and R&D programmes to the point it has become the place to be for ambitious technology players – particularly those operating in fintech and cybersecurity. Evidenced by Belfast’s status as the world’s number one destination globally for fintech development investment projects and the number one European city for new FDI software development ventures, Northern Ireland is carving its own unique niche in the digital world.
But how did this come to be? According to the region’s biggest players, it has a lot to do with its collaborative ethos, its abundance of talent and the supportive entrepreneurial environment it offers enterprises, big and small.
Northern Ireland’s small population has formed a burgeoning network in which universities, tech start-ups, home-grown talent and global players have worked together to drive the technology boom.
Innovative start-ups, such as Belfast’s Bitnet which was acquired by Tokyo based Rakuten, are delivering solutions globally while major financial institutions like the Bank of England are collaborating with world leading consultancy houses such as PwC which has invested heavily in the region for a number of years.
Global names such as Citi, Allstate, Liberty Mutual and Visa have established and expanded their operations in Northern Ireland too, while home-grown start-ups and the SME tech community are thriving, thanks to the country’s highly developed entrepreneurial ecosystem, vibrant networking scene and the active promotion of sector collaboration.
All this activity has led todiscoveries and disruptions across emerging technologies such as blockchain, cyber security, Governance Risk and Compliance (GRC), and trading technologies – driving growth that is outstripping London, according to a recent report by TheCityUK, and making Northern Ireland the “go to” location for financial services technology and innovations.
PwC chose Northern Ireland to base its blockchain hub, and PA Consulting announced plans to create 400 tech jobs in its digital centre in Belfast. Meanwhile, hundreds of jobs have been created in areas including Londonderry and Newry by exciting firms such as software and tech consultancy firm, Alchemy Technology Services, award-winning financial services firm FinTrU and AIM listed First Derivatives, the developer of world-leading database technology, kdb+.
Rakuten, an internet services and global innovation giant headquartered in Japan, established a fintech software development centre in Belfast. Yasufumi Hirai, Rakuten’s chief information officer and chief information security officer said: “Invest NI’s support, combined with the availability of local skills and talent, made Northern Ireland our preferred location to establish our unique blockchain lab. The engagement and work ethic of the personnel we’ve recruited locally is impressive and we’re confident the team in Belfast will be an invaluable addition to the Rakuten Group.”
For over a decade, the region has sharply focused on creating the jobs of tomorrow and building a skilled workforce to support its growth as a leader in IT and technology.
Both Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University house trading rooms sponsored by industry – dynamic learning environments that provide a platform for students and external users to engage with the complex and challenging issues of real time trading. Fintech is also a key domain focus of CARL, Ulster University’s Cognitive Analytics Research Lab which launched in 2017 to advance its multi-sector expertise in data analytics, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Meanwhile, Queen’s University Belfast is home to CSIT, the UK’s Innovation & Knowledge Centre for cyber security, and has just recently announced it will be offering 40 full scholarships worth over half a million pounds to help secure Northern Ireland’s status as global cybersecurity hub and meet industry demands.
This, along with the support and lifestyle on offer is why international players are investing in Belfast. Citi’s country officer, James Bardrick, represents just one of many investors to recognise this appeal. He commented: “The supply of talent in Northern Ireland, particularly at graduate level, is impressive and, coupled with the support from Invest NI and the Department for the Economy, it makes this region highly attractive to a global company like Citi seeking the best location for growth.”
Mercer’s Quality of Living Index for 2019 highlights Northern Ireland’s ever-increasing attractiveness as a place to live, work, study and visit. With lower rents than London, and a better work-life balance, the region’s population – one of the youngest in Europe – doesn’t want to leave the area where ambitious organisations are creating exciting, high-value jobs. The rapid growth in opportunities, good schools and renowned quality of life are also proving a draw to people who want to move back or into the region.
Furthermore, through the region’s main economic development organisation, Invest Northern Ireland, businesses can access a range of services to help set-up, innovate and grow. It can provide access to specialist knowledge, such as academic and research organisations, as well as initial financial, training and recruitment support.
The agency’s aim to partner with companies investing in the region for the entire duration of their project, rather than leaving them to it after the initial set-up of their businesses has proven hugely successful. The proof? Approximately 75% of new investors have reinvested in the region over the past decade.
Other countries who wish to emulate Northern Ireland’s success and carve out their place in the most critical industries of the future, must focus on creating a supportive landscape where businesses, the public sector and academia can work together to innovate and nurture talent. It is only through this collaboration that Northern Ireland has been able to respond to the rapidly changing demands of the digital age and establish foundations which will allow it to continue to flourish long into the future.
By Karen Bradbury, financial services sector lead, Invest Northern Ireland