Posted on Wednesday 13 November 2013 by Ulster Business

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On a weekend in the middle of October, a team of twenty technology companies, the University of Ulster and Queen's University departed Belfast for California in pursuit of investment, customers, partnerships and an insight into the workings of the world's foremost technology hub.

The trip was conceived and led by Belfast Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who wished to foster closer connections between the city and Silicon Valley's innovation ecosystem.

Silicon Valley is located in the Bay Area of San Francisco, and has grown out of more than a century of defence technology research, sixty years of development of silicon transistors and the advancement of computing technologies and forty years of Venture Capital investment. In the past decade Silicon Valley has incubated over one hundred thousand digital media startup companies, as teams and technologies arrived from around the world to build their businesses.

Many Governments have tried to replicate the conditions in which Silicon Valley has flourished. However, one of the region's strengths is that it is an open system. We don't yet need another Silicon Valley because we already have one within which we can all do business.

The team first mobilised at Foley's Irish Pub in San Francisco, sharing their businesses aspirations for the week. The companies ranged from startups, such as Beacon, Taggled and Venuebooker, through to Belfast's established and expanding technology companies AirPOS, Cirdan Imaging, Jar Technologies and SpeechStorm.

Monday morning started in San Francisco's financial district with a visit to the US Market Access Center and the RocketSpace Incubator. The team received tips on how to pitch to local Venture Capitalists from the Center's Alfredo Coppola and Chris Burry, both serial entrepreneurs who have found success in the valley. Each company was challenged to communicate their 'wow' statement in less than 20 seconds, distilling their differentiating features and crafting their compelling benefits.

The afternoon provided an opportunity for a selection of the team to travel across the new Bay Bridge to visit Ekso Bionics, a company that is intent on developing exoskeletons to assist the mobility of paraplegics. The company wishes to help people who suffer from stroke, multiple sclerosis, and other debilitating conditions to get back on their feet. The visitors were energised by how Ekso Bionics had brought together world leading technology, an international team and smart capital to change the lives of 1.3 million paralysed American citizens and many more around the world.

The evening brought diaspora and friends of Belfast together at an event organised by the NI Bureau and NI Connections. There was enormous goodwill and support for the Belfast Tech Mission, with introductions made to many of Silicon Valley's notable companies.

Tuesday took us to Menlo Park, where more than sixty per cent of the venture capital in the USA is located. Companies pitched to a selection of Silicon Valley's most prominent Venture Capitalists, including Tim Guleri of Sierra Ventures, who has led over $1.5bn dollars of investment.

One of the highlights was Cargo's Chris McClelland's pitching of 'Brewbot', a home brewing device that is controlled by a smartphone. Chris was championing advocacy of a kickstarter campaign to secure £100k of crowd funding and as the week advanced, so did Brewbot's fortunes, with the project successfully funded by the time of our return.

On Wednesday, delegates were hosted by John Hartnett, founder of the Irish Technology Leadership Group, at his SVG Accelerator in San Jose, where the week's first investment of $800,000, in Sisaf Ltd, was announced. A portfolio company of the University of Ulster, Sisaf Ltd is a biotech company chaired by John Hartnett with a novel drug delivery system currently in clinical trials.

That afternoon brought the team to the University of California, Berkeley, to the SkyDeck Incubator which benefits from one of the greatest views in the Bay Area. The university theme continued on Thursday, with a visit to Stanford University's famed D School with colleagues from Northern Ireland's Department of Employment and Learning.

In parallel, many of the Belfast Tech Mission companies took the opportunity to conduct business development activities, including Performa Sports, which held sales and partner seminars at supporting locations throughout the Bay Area.

On our return to Belfast, the emails flowed from the delegates, showing deep gratitude for the support of the Lord Mayor, Belfast City Council and Invest NI. It may have been the first Belfast Tech Mission to Silicon Valley, but will most definitely not be the last.

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