Posted on Tuesday 12 February 2013 by Ulster Business

Interview NISP

Aiming to accelerate development of Northern Ireland's technology sector are Steve Orr, Director of NISP CONNECT; Dr Chris Horn, the new Chair of the CONNECT programme; and Norman Apsley, CEO of the NI Science Park.

Dublin-based entrepreneur Chris Horn is a man with unrivalled experience when it comes to taking a start-up tech company global.

It is something of a coup then that he has agreed to become Chair of NISP CONNECT, the NI Science Park-based programme which fosters entrepreneurship by accelerating the growth of promising technologies and early stage companies.

Dr Horn is the current chairman of tech firms Sophia Search, Cloudsmith and Gridstore, but is best known as the co-founder and former Chair of IONA Technologies PLC, the Irish technology company which listed on the Nasdaq in the late 1990s in a $137m IPO and was sold to a US firm in 2008 for $162m.

It was through his role advising Sophia Search, the semantic tagging and enterprise search company spun out from the University of Ulster, which Horn became aware of NISP CONNECT.

The programme organises the successful 25k Awards, as well as the VC Forum, Frameworks, the Knowledge Economy Index report, Enterprise Forum, Generation Innovation and the US-NI Mentorship Programme.

However, as a former board member of UU Tech, the body for spinout companies at the University of Ulster, Horn had long been impressed by the technology coming out of Northern Ireland.

"My sense is, and it's easy for me to say this as an outsider, that the hi-tech community is probably where we were here in Dublin maybe 10 or 15 years ago. There are some really good people, some really great engineering, but not a lot of international commercialisation experience in terms of sales and marketing channels, and not many well developed personal networks," he told Ulster Business.

"The tech industry really revolves around personal networks, particularly in Silicon Valley. Every single person is trying to meet more people and grow their network every day and that culture has spread a little bit to Dublin. We need to bring it into Northern Ireland to build those networks," added Horn.

Creating an environment where entrepreneurs are encouraged to build companies, exit and then reinvest their time and finances into new companies, is crucial to growing a vibrant tech sector, says NISP CONNECT's new chairman.

"You have to move away from the culture of lifestyle companies to fast growing companies that you sell and then move on to another one, and another one. It makes the whole investment process work because people can get their return and reinvest in the next one. It also inspires the next generation of middle managers who see founders making their exit and think, well if he can do it, why can't I?" he said.

"I don't think there is a lack of ambition. Certainly there are a lot of people in Belfast who are keen to grow their companies internationally. It is more that there are not that many people who have actually done it and therefore the experience level is not as developed. By helping founders and CEOs with networking in the States I hope I can help companies grow faster."

There is, he thinks, potential to replicate the way the South built its tech sector, with the emergence of thriving indigenous companies and strong multi-nationals, alongside good Government support.

"My general feeling is that government is there to build the environment but at the end of the day entrepreneurs have to make it happen. One thing Government can do is use their procurement budget. Most companies don't want grants, they want customers so that when they go to Boston or New York or wherever they can show they actually have people using their products," said Horn.

With the likes of Sophia raising money in Silicon Valley, Horn thinks interest from the US in Northern Ireland, and the amount of risk capital available, will increase this year. However, he's not sure whether any of the Science Park's companies are yet ready to follow IONA's lead with a Nasdaq listing.

"To be seen as a global player in the tech sector, Nasdaq is kind of a coming of age. It is at that point you are seen as a grown up. Fortune 1000 companies are generally wary of dealing with private companies when they can't see quarterly results and the transparency that comes with a US listing. My sense is that there are not too many companies in Belfast that I've personally seen who are there yet."




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