Elaine Smyth, Director of Innovation at Catalyst, highlights importance of new ideas for business growth
Innovation is at the heart of successful companies. This is evident with the businesses that have returned in this year’s Top 100 list and indeed with the others who have made their 2019 debut. At Catalyst, we put innovation at the forefront of everything we do. From the programmes we create, to the entrepreneurs who use our campuses, even in the buildings we design. We have 174 on-campus companies, 900 entrepreneurs, 39 partners and hundreds of mentors and experts providing time and expertise. Our goal is to build a strong connected community inspired by exceptional workspaces allowing entrepreneurs, researchers and enterprises to innovate.
In a time when everything is changing the need for innovation has never been greater. Banks are becoming technology companies, data is being captured and analysed continuously from some of the most unusual places. Even bicycle light companies are becoming data analytics companies and becoming a source of intelligence for smart cities. Did you know that even smart bins are a thing?
Here in NI it is relatively easy to start a business, but to grow and scale a successful business that makes a serious impact on the world stage, this is a lot more difficult.
At Catalyst we want to make it easier for Northern Ireland companies in the Knowledge Economy to not simply exist, but to achieve the greatness they are capable of. SMES make up 75% of the NI economy. We believe some SMES have the potential scale and become global leaders.
I feel inspired and encouraged everyday with the companies that are already growing, raising money and aiming for greatness based in Catalyst and indeed across Northern Ireland. Companies such as Plotbox based in our Ballymena ECOS campus has won global customers after that changing the face of death care management for cemeteries, biometric technology company B-secur that is impacting the automotive and health sectors, Neurovalens who raised one of the largest investments by a tech firm, specialises in combining neuroscience and technology to tackle some of the most prevalent health issues affecting the current generation.
In these days of disruption, the most incredible opportunities develop. The entrepreneurs and their start-ups can react quickly and get to market before well-established companies.
The recent NI Deal Tracker report, it was revealed that companies in Northern Ireland raised £28.8m in 2018, a decline of 12% from 2017 but, encouragingly, it found a small uplift in Venture Capital being attracted from outside Northern Ireland. Forty-nine companies attracted investment of at least £100k, with the average investment figure at £565k, however, as in 2017 there were no investments over £5m into a single company
which is part of an investment target plan by numerous financial firms here.
There is no time for complacency and at Catalyst we are seeing the determination from the companies in our community to ensure they are positioned to collaborate, support and learn together. As Hilary Clinton often quotes, “It takes a village to raise a child”, it takes a well-connected community for businesses to achieve more together than working independently.
Corporates are now valuing the start-ups in a way that isn’t threatening. Start-ups are now accessing corporates and governments with greater ease.
One of our greatest challenges faced by innovation companies if that of talent. Government and industry need to work together on addressing provision. Recently we were in inspired to hear that 20 years ago the Irish government agreed to double the number of computer science graduates. A courageous move such as this is much needed in the north.
In this year’s Knowledge Economy Report, an independent report Catalyst publishes annually, the good news is that for a fifth consecutive year Northern Ireland is the 2nd fastest growing of the UK regions in terms of activity.
However, it also shows that we need to keep working on harnessing innovation within business, improving skills and creating an environment in which we can support talented start-ups to get to market and accelerate growth are major factors for growth. Investing to grow our Knowledge Economy is fundamental to the sustainable success of NI. The research shows that if we achieve the aspirations for the knowledge economy, there would be circa 80,000 jobs and £3.2bn GVA added to our economy. This will require an additional 2,500 skilled people coming into NI and will only be possible if we focus our efforts and our collective responsibility to act now.
For companies it is not just what they do but how they do it. The Future of Work Solutions Summit on 29 May will help business leaders to reflect on how work is being done, how the best innovation, technology and humans can work together to provide a step change in performance, productivity and competitiveness. It offers the perfect platform for companies to glean information from the most innovative companies in this space and take them back to their own organisations to change for the better.
Disruptive innovation is nothing to be feared, rather it must be embraced and develop in order for us all to reach our full potential.
Staff from Catalyst companies take part in a discussion at the NI Deal Tracker event earlier this year
Gavin Kennedy of Bank of Ireland UK, event speaker Peter Worth of School Retool and Elaine Smyth at a recent Future of Work event