Posted on Saturday 22 January 2011 by Ulster Business

Steve Orr

The man behind the Northern Ireland Science Park's CONNECT programme is a firm believer in the capability for invention in Northern Ireland and is aiming to help create a culture that will allow more of our entrepreneurs to build globally competitive companies.

Steve Orr is a self-confessed fan of the US, and in particular the access to opportunity it provides anybody with talent and ambition. After ten years working in the US the Director of the NISP CONNECT programme returned home in 2007 - bored he says of the perfect weather, missing the craic, and because his wife is also from these shores. His goal was to replicate the CONNECT model that San Diego successfully employed to transform its economy and create a vibrant ecosystem for new ventures. After graduating from the University of Northumbria at Newcastle in 1994 with a degree in Business Information Technology, Orr spent six years working in Buckinghamshire, San Diego and San Francisco for S.Com Ltd and S.Com Inc. In 2000, he co-founded Kineticom, a technical talent firm based in San Diego, which in 2006 was ranked 33 on the Inc 500 list of the fastest growing privately held companies in the US. Orr saw first hand how CONNECT in San Diego became the world's most successful regional program for linking inventors and entrepreneurs with the resources they need for success and says the same principles could provide a major boost to the success of Northern Ireland. "The more that we create the culture of collaboration, the more that people have help on the way up, the more they are likely to help people when they've made it, and we could create an incredibly strong culture here that becomes one of the greatest assets the region has," he told Ulster Business. "The key factor in all of this is developing a connected region so that the people in the research base are connected to those with the business known-how. "The role of NISP CONNECT is not to pick the winners but to facilitate the process, as a platform that's neutral, non-profit and enables all communities to get entrepreneurial education. It's about mentoring and how you harness the collective intelligence for access to critical resources like venture capital and advocacy." The business accelerator programme is dedicated to the rapid and sustained growth of the most promising new ventures that commercialise science and technology in Northern Ireland. It focuses on research institution support, business creation and development, entrepreneurial learning, access to capital, public policy advocacy, awards, recognition and networking and supports entrepreneurs in the four broad areas of HiTech, Biotech, CleanTech and Digital Media & Software. While it receives Government funding, moves are underway to raise funds over the next few years for an endowment that will help the programme become self sustaining. Orr says that DETI understands the CONNECT idea and is very supportive, but he thinks it is important that the initiative is led by the private sector it seeks to mobilise. "There's a real willingness here to see the economy transformed. This is a great opportunity for the private sector at home and abroad to take on a lot of that responsibility and to help those guys out. Unless that happens all the pressure is on the public sector, which doesn't have the same appreciation of risk," he said. "Risk is the key item within all of this. And the ambition levels of the private sector to be willing to take more risk. There is very little risk in the model itself other than people committing their own reputations." While he concedes that the concept of 'creating an ecosystem for innovation' sounds a bit nebulous, he believes that adopting a high risk, high reward model would help Northern Ireland's business community shake off the influence of old boys' networks and help create a greater capability to commercialise disruptive technology. "We have to start developing clusters and entrepreneurial capabilities within sectors and to connect people so that entrepreneurs here have accelerated access to markets. That's the greatest value of our diaspora and organisations like the ITLG. We've got to leverage that and get it right," he said. "If you have an early stage high potential technology venture and you are competing with four or five companies around the world with different technologies, different leadership teams, different business models, you don't care where somebody went to school or where somebody goes or does not go on a Sunday. It is the most pure form of meritocracy." Next month will see the publication of the NISP CONNECT Innovation Index, a measure of data that will benchmark how Northern Ireland fares in terms of innovative capacity in comparison with the Republic, other regions of the UK, and Europe. Orr thinks it may not make favourable reading but says once there is greater awareness of how we rank on the key metrics, the need to develop disruptive technology and not just sustaining technology will become more apparent. "You can translate it back down to what is it we believe ourselves to be as a people. Should we be leading the world in our ability to invent? Northern Ireland's unfair advantage over the rest of the world is that we have the nerd gene. We have expertise in engineering and medicine and our ability to invent. That has never left us," he said. "We don't want to be the Silicon Valley of Europe, we're not big enough. But let's become better than anyone else at the things we are strong in."

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