Innovation Island?

From Slugger O’Toole It seems we in Northern Ireland aren’t doing so well when it comes to innovation, at least according to InterTrade Ireland. Simon Hamilton tweeted this announcement from one of his fellow ministers yesterday: “Arlene Foster reveals only 1 of 18 nominations in InterTradeIreland awards from NI & this is a trend. Does … Continue reading “Innovation Island?”

From Slugger O’Toole

It seems we in Northern Ireland aren’t doing so well when it comes to innovation, at least according to InterTrade Ireland. Simon Hamilton tweeted this announcement from one of his fellow ministers yesterday:

“Arlene Foster reveals only 1 of 18 nominations in InterTradeIreland awards from NI & this is a trend. Does ROI have monopoly on innovation?”

I do wonder what “innovation” has to do being represented in an awards show. Does a panel from IntertradeIreland actively search for innovation and inspiration or is this yet another nomination exercise? Someone, maybe even the MD of the business, fills in a form, tells a story and enters a dog’n’pony show?

And shame on our ministers for making a big deal of it. Obviously we’d all love to win an award, parade around with a few suits, have my picture taken (obviously proffering an iPad or laptop towards the camera) and get our pictures into a local advertising aggregator web site. That would be a real measure of innovation in our region.

According to the Technology Strategy Board, Northern Ireland companies do not respond to their competitions as much as they should (based on population). NESTA say that Northern Ireland has a poor rate of response to their programmes. Channel 4 “4IP” told me that they got very few applications from Northern Ireland, much lower than expected. Is it just that we don’t play well with others?

Looking south of the border, they have their own sovereign nation which is an advantage as they have their own controls over corporation tax and other economic drivers. While they were holding out their hands to Europe for a national bailout, they were spending like mad to encourage enterprise. They realised that you have to invest your way out of a recession. We initiate a game development pilot, they copy it but boost the numbers by 10. We have been arguing for a publicly supported incubator, they have about ten of them. We’re playing catchup, yes, but it’s not the private sector who needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

All my life has been in a divided nation. As a vaguely union-supporting post-graduate professional from a middle class catholic background, I have very little national identity of any form and quite literally I am not involved in the politics of the region; I have not voted in years. I feel no loyalty to our political parties because I don’t feel like any of them have any loyalty to me.

Northern Ireland is the most isolated region in the British Isles. We’re the only region of the UK which shares a land border with another sovereign nation; a nation which uses a different currency, offers extremely competitive corporation tax rates and didn’t really suffer thirty years of civil war. We’re separated from the rest of the UK by one of the most expensive stretches of water in the world and due to decades of mismanagement, our pointless little country can only survive in handouts from the UK government. When the block grant goes (and it will), we will have to deal with some very hard questions. Either that or revitalise our previously successful crime and terrorism industry.

It aggravates me when Invest Northern Ireland hands back £50m of their budget to the DFP and blames the private sector for not investing. It makes me ask questions about their ability to forecast when a third of their budget goes unspent. It makes me wonder if they are even aware of recession economics – most businesses I talk to are unable to spend days filling out forms for grants because they are paying the bills and when they’re not working their butts off to pay the bills, they’re trying to build the next big thing on their own time; time, according to Invest Northern Ireland, is worthless.

I have started three businesses in Northern Ireland and I am currently working on starting my fourth. I have never taken a single penny of grant aid from Invest Northern Ireland. The job I’m currently doing means I am supping from the public teat and it can be argued whether or not I would be better off doing my own thing or continuing in this line. I feel that I signed up to a duty of care for the digital sector in Northern Ireland when I took this job and right now I wonder whether I’ve taken on too much responsibility and whether I care too much about the outcomes. Being part of the process of helping our startups has somewhat overtaken my life.

So, in short, no, obviously, the ROI does not have a monopoly on innovation. And yes, our programmes in place are not adequately supporting our startups. And no, it’s not the startups fault.

10 thoughts on “Innovation Island?”

  1. My (brief) experience of the tech startup sector in NI was similar – we spent a lot of time filling in forms for grant money for speculative projects that never got off the ground.

  2. Hi Matt,
    To clarify my previous point on Twitter: I meant that as no criticism of your own position, rather I think there has been a tendency (nay, we have been encouraged) to think of the economy as a set of mutually antagonistic sectors and that seems to me to be killing innovation and recovery. The government have, with some success, planted a notion in the public mind that there is a private sector, all innovation and enterprise, and a public sector, that’s as stagnant as shuck-water. I’m no economist, but I’m not sure that dividing the economy into discrete sectors is wise and perhaps a more holistic approach might be better. Banks that won’t lend to small and medium size business are no bloody use and public/government bodies that lay the dead of bureaucracy on every attempt to innovate are stifling the very thing they want to encourage.

    The idea that Northern Ireland lacks innovative people is plainly ridiculous. Innovation doesn’t recognise boarders! If innovation is being stifled in NI then maybe Arlene & Co need to look at the structural reasons for that.

    I think you raise a key point when you say you haven’t voted for years. I’m a political animal and I struggle to find somewhere to make my mark on a Northern Ireland ballot paper. We have political parties in here that simply do not speak in any consistent or coherent way to the economic and social issues that face a post-conflict society. And for that reason, we’re probably fucked… that’s the technical term.

    Have you seen Invest NI forms? Are they arduous? My own experience of form-filling-in is that it’s maddening. You feel you need a language expert. You desperately want to speak to a human being but keep getting fobbed off with ‘gov-speak’ and jargon.

  3. Why are Northern companies afraid to enter awards illustrating innovation? Are they afraid we might win? Get publicity? Get cash? Or is it because we are lazy? Or are we just chicken in case we don’t win and too busy complaining that the paper work to get free money in the form of grants is hurting their wee hands?

    When Invest NI hands back money it’s because the private sector didn’t claim it. If it’s too difficult to claim it’s because individuals proclaiming to be ‘innovators’ slam Invest NI, causing the politicians to ask more questions and an additional layer of bureaucracy goes onto the onion as the institution defends itself. Truth-be-told it’s not hard to get funded by Invest NI.

    I received funding from Invest NI last year. It’s not that difficult. They don’t give it to you if they think the project is bound for failure. They don’t give it to you if you haven’t put the effort in or have a proven yourself or have no track record of success. It’s not a free well of money for everyone to go dip their buckets into and draw from; it’s not like that with Enterprise Ireland either. It’s not Invest NI’s responsibility to prove the success and viability of a project before they back it. It’s yours!

    Invest NI have hundreds of staff dedicated to understanding the quality of a business plan and the likelihood of success. If they can’t find enough projects to back, do you think it’s because Simon Hamilton is hoarding the money for a villa in Spain? Or is it due to a lack of innovation and get-up-and-go in NI? Are you saying that we should trust your anecdotal opinion over the meticulous workings of a few hundred well trained staff? Arlene Foster is onto something.

    You clearly have never worked a day in the South either my friend. Try working South of the boarder and then work in the North. The attitude, experience, drive and yes, the Innovation would knock you down when compared to the North. It’s very rare to hear complaints the way you have expressed in the South, because culturally it’s unacceptable to blame the players in a game for failure when you don’t play the game yourself. Find me any successful business person blogging about the failures of Enterprise Ireland. You won’t! And it’s not because they are get it right 100% of the time. It’s because the Republic of Ireland take the responsibility of success on as a personal endeavor and don’t look to the state for anything other than assistance when they have proven themselves.

    Perhaps you should stop “sucking from the public teat”, actually try and work with Invest NI, start producing employment, become a net contributor to the state, actually try and see how hard it is to deal with Invest NI instead of jumping on the rhetoric bandwagon and slamming something you claim to never have experienced.

    I’m glad the Digital Industry in NI has you. Dedicating your life to the digital sector. Taking on so much responsibility and working for it’s salvation. I have worked in the digital sector in Northern Ireland for 6 years and I have never heard of you! I got this link to your blog from a friend. She was rolling her eyes and asking me if I knew who you were. So less of the self-certifying, low grade, rhetoric and start to play the game instead of whining about it from the sidelines.

    I’ll put £25 to a charity of your choice if you actually publish this.

  4. Hi Erin,
    Make sure you GiftAid the donation and give it to MenCap NI.

    Your experience of *everything* is at odds with mine. And that includes experiences of EI and INI.

    I do have my toe in the private sector. I have started multiple businesses (1996, 2003, 2006, 2011), I employ a small number of people, am most definitely a net contributor to the state (considering the tax I, my businesses and employees have paid over the last twenty years), founded an innovation-led incubator (2009) with a budget that came out of founders pockets, established new standards in public-private partnerships (2008-2011), fought pretty much tirelessly for Northern Ireland businesses in the digital sector. If I didn’t manage to find you, with your considerable digital footprint, then I accept that as a failure on my part but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

    I hope you don’t mind if I continue consider a self-nomination awards ceremony to NOT be an indication of innovation in Northern Ireland.

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  6. I wish the people of Northern Ireland looked at some stark facts about the country they live in and then put everything into context.

    Population – circa 1.8million residents
    Population over 18 years of age: 1.37 million
    Population between 17 & 60 years of age: 1.1 million (560,000 of which are over 40 years, 05. million between 20 and 40 years).

    The facts speak for themselves Northern Ireland is VERY small.

    For years Northern Ireland has been dependent upon EU grants and subsidies from the UK government. Why do you think Northern Ireland has suffered the most during the recession – because most people living here have never experienced a recession – they do not know what to do.

    The construction industry is a good example of this.

    During the 1970s and 1980s construction firms were kept in work by the results of terrorist activity. Then in the 1990s, it picked up work from projects funded by the EU peace grants. Early part of this century it was funded by the greed of house owners and property investors.

    Now there is hardly any work for them in Northern Ireland – the successful ones now look overseas for contracts.

    Since 1970, the rest of the UK suffered three recessions early 1970s, late80s/early 90s and late 00s. Established business owners and business advisers on the mainland know how to ride a recession.

    Plus, you can’t just turn on “innovation” overnight to try and build a private sector, especially in a country where change, risk and failure are frowned upon.

    Let’s say 5% of the population of 20-40 years (0.5 million people) were innovators – that would give us 25,000 innovative people that is only 1.4% of the total population of Northern Ireland.

    Even if we said a staggering 20% of those 20-40 years old were innovative – that would be 100,000 people or 5.5% of the total population of Northern Ireland.

    The political leaders of Northern Ireland should STOP looking at what is going to happen within the next 1-3 years or looking back on what has happened. They should be looking at 10-20 years ahead.

    Money should be invested in the education of our children, some of the current p7s will be graduating from university in 10 years time – invest in them, give them the skills they need to be innovative and lead.

    Start by giving every child who starts secondary school an ipad (encourage then to use it for creativity as well as learning) – cost £7-10 million per year. Not a lot, when you look at the 108 MLAs who were given just under £6 million in allowances between April-December 2010 (

    Also why do politicians keep comparing what goes on in the North to the South? Do the council leaders of Greater Manchester (population 2.5 million) constantly compare what is achieved in Manchester to that achieved in London?

    You can’t compare North and South. The culture and attitudes between the people of the North and South of Ireland are quite different. The political structures of the two countries are different.

    The Irish government can set their own agenda. Northern Ireland executive still have to consult the main UK government or take their advice on certain issues.

    Erin Curran said “They don’t give it to you if they think the project is bound for failure.”

    I was awarded a £4,000 innovation voucher to build a prototype of an invention I had thought up (I was advised by another NI department to apply for it in a hurry). I could have cashed that voucher in and built a prototype, but I realised that upon further consideration, the invention had no real financial viability in a commercial world. So I didn’t cash it in.

    Perhaps the person who issued the voucher should have thought, what ROI will the Northern Ireland government get from that idea over the next 5-10 years.

    Invest NI should be identifying those ideas that have potential to EXPORT a product or service from Northern Ireland and produce a ROI and give those companies/businesses as much guidance and help as possible.

    For the record, I was not born in Northern Ireland, I am a “blow in”. I have lived here for 6 years and in those 6 years I have realised that Northern Ireland has a lot to offer, but it is constantly let down by inexperienced politicians (who are still squabbling over the past) and the attitude of many people in Northern Ireland.

    With regard to the people of Northern Ireland – lack of aspiration (many are happy to muddle along with what they have), fear of failure and often a narrow mind set are stifling the future of Northern Ireland.

    Failure is how we learn – Many of the great historic buildings that are still standing today (hundreds of years old), suffered partial collapse during their construction. The designers and builders of those great buildings didn’t give up, they looked at what caused the collapse, redesigned it and built it again. For them partial failure was a method of learning, but total failure was not an option.

    I have lived and worked in a range of communities, having grown up in a small very rural village of 150 residents, 6 years living and working in London, 10 years living and working in Manchester as well as living and working in other small towns for a few years. I have experienced and witnessed many things in those different places. Whilst working in London, my work allowed me to meet the super rich, the famous, the landed gentry as well as the less fortunate people in society. So I know that there is another world outside the bubble of Northern Ireland.

  7. Suppose as good as place as any for me too have a little rant.

    If we could get half of the amount of attention paid to what’s going on in the Digital indsustry as there is given to the language on the signs in Belfast City Hall or the not presenting Duke of Edinburgh awards.

    That’d be a good start.

    Oh, and another thing would be ensuring that people in charge of these initiatives are not scared by technology.

    Note: I’m not asking for Tech Saavy, I’m asking for the stoppage of the “I wouldn’t even know how to turn it on” attitude.

    I don’t speak from experience here, but I’d love to know how things differ say between approaching these government companies from shipping a digital product to shipping a physical product.

    I work in the digital content industry, we have to play on an international playing field right from the get go, because the simple fact of the matter is our customers don’t care where on earth the product was made. It’s really as simple as that. They don’t care.

    There is another thing that needs to go too, the preconception that something produced in Northern Ireland should be held to a lower standard. I bet the boys down in Dublin get a much better grilling than those in the North do because the people who are asking the questions down there, know in the first place what questions to be asking. Therefore the RIGHT people are getting the funding.

    Two great examples of Northern Irish Companies competing on a level playing field internationally are

    Did you know for example that Hector: Badge of Carnage has a Metacritic Score of 75 and 83 on the iOS? That puts it one point ahead of The Offical “GhostBusters” Game a $15 million to $20 million project. As well as a massive host of “AAA” quality games.

    360Production are working with the likes of and BBC to create absolutely top class VFX work. I am entirely expecting them to be up for an award this year for James May’s: Things you need to know. (Which some of you might have watched on BBC)

    I wonder how many people in the various bodies that be know about those two companies and their products, and the stories just don’t end with those guys there are many many more companies in various fields around the country that have real legs and real punching power. (Disclaimer: I have deliberately omitted my place of work)

    If I was a man sitting over in the likes of Invest Northern Ireland. Rather than asking these guys to jump through hoops to get a grant or two. I’d absolutely be banging down the door and asking them desperately “How can we help?”, and I’d want to identify which companies are worth it BEFORE those companies did it in spite of me. Why would they want to give up any % of their business after they just did it without you after all?

    The real danger here is that things can be handled so badly that a “go it alone” attitude might just develop. I know of various companies in those boats. Companies that, if I had the money myself. I absolutely would invest in, but simply dont have an adequate audience.

    I think the politicians have got it all wrong. It’s not a case of competing with Dublin. It’s a case of competing with the world, that’s who we are selling it to after all, not the local paper. Bring it on I say. By hook or by crook. It’ll happen eventually.

    Last Note: NI Screen and DCAL/CIIF I think are an exception to many of the things Matt’s been talking about.

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