Posted on Tuesday 19 January 2010 by Ulster Business

Innovation Nation

You would think an economic downturn would take its toll on the local innovation economy. Not so, says Timothy Brundle, director of innovation at the University of Ulster who believes there were more tech startups in 2009 than at the start of the dot com bubble…

At the end of each year, my colleagues and I at the University of Ulster review the work we have completed for the private and public sectors. The analysis of the data for 2009 provides a valuable insight to the actions taken by entrepreneurs, businesses and social enterprises to counteract the effects of the economic downtown. It also provides an indicator of the local business prospects for 2010. If the last year has taught us anything, it should be how to deal with uncertainty. As Groucho Marx once said, ‘the future isn’t what it used to be…’. But in the midst of recession, Northern Ireland’s innovation ecosystem is maturing and our tech companies are in pursuit of growth. The University of Ulster has recorded another year of growth in our support for business in 2009. We undertook over 4,000 contracts, provided almost 1,000 innovative solutions to companies and provided over 50,000 days of management training. More businesses worked with us during the economic downturn than in any previous year of the University’s history. The University has also enjoyed recognition for its business ventures. In the last three months of the year, our spin out company ‘Tactility Factory’ won the overall prize at the Northern Ireland £25K business start awards, our company ‘SOPHIA Search’ won the grand prize at the InterTradeIreland Seedcorn competition, picking up a cheque for €100,000, and the University’s work with iPhone was profiled on www.apple.com. Behind the statistics is also an interesting story about the local innovation economy. We believe that there were more tech startups in Northern Ireland in 2009 than at the height of the dot com bubble. Whilst the overall startup climate is improving, it’s still hard for early stage companies to get exposure to the right investors and in the media. We have also observed investments in technology aligned to the themes of ‘MATRIX’, the NI Science Industry Panel. For example, we have seen exciting developments in connected health, in geo-locating smartphone applications, consumer applications of nanotechnology and smart materials for large engineering projects. Given the activity in the local innovation marketplace in the past year, 2010 should be another interesting year as the projects and startups begin to mature. It is possible that 2010 could see both Northern Ireland’s highest ever level of SME investment in R&D and the pursuit of an unsurpassed amount of seed and angel funding. This year will also see an upgrade to our innovation infrastructure as Project Kelvin goes live, providing a secure, low latency, direct digital connection between North America and Northern Ireland. Kelvin presents a great prospect for local entrepreneurs and inward investors to provide competitive digital services around the world, creating opportunities for new businesses, encouraging new business models and requiring new skills within Northern Ireland.

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