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A Report Card for Belfast as a Startup Ecosystem

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by Startacus Admin

If you search online for David Kirk you will find that he has been an active commentator of the NI Startup scene and the powers that be within that ecosystem.

Based over in California and with a history of Tech Startups and investments under his belt, David thought it was a good time to look back a little David Kirk NIand see how the Belfast and more generally NI startup scene has developed in the last decade. 

Bearing in mind that May is also our month long focus on Belfast Startups - well bingo, what better time for David to issue a report card for Belfast as a Startup Ecosystem. So does Belfast make the grade?  Over to David...


"‘Tis again the season to be discussing Belfast and startups, & many, good words are being written. But what has really changed in the past decade?

The three C’s of any startup ecosystem are: Culture, Community, Capital. So how is Belfast now, verses the early 2000’s.

CULTURE

A necessary element of any startup ecosystem is a culture that, while not exactly celebrating failure, certainly doesn’t penalize it or stand in the headlights for fear of it. Northern Ireland is still risk-averse. There I said it. Fear of failure froze people in their tracks. I remember in 2006, a Startup scene Northern Irelandreasonably successful member of the old boy’s club telling me “I can’t speak out, even if it’s the truth. I depend on those grants.”

Today I’m hearing the invincible under thirties rejecting the shackles that comes with those thirty pieces of silver, and even some of the forties taking risks that they would never have dreamed of a decade ago. Good on ya!

But there are still the parasites. The professional board members, the industry experts (in their mind only), the same-old, same-old faces that will never solve the problems, because it was their thinking that caused it. In other good signs, I’m seeing more people willing to start things without all the answers – a clear anathema to the predominantly civil service mindset.

COMMUNITY

Belfast has always had a strong community, actually a couple of strong communities, though not always aligned. A startup “needs a village” but the Startup scene Northern Irelandessential ecosystem for today’s technology base in different than that of a decade ago. Universities were once a fundamental element in the entrepreneurial recipe – Silicon Valley would not have cooked if there had not been Stanford in the crock-pot.

But – unfortunately – things have changed, and the universities in Northern Ireland are more or less irrelevant to any respectable startup with actual potential. Computer Science now resembles more of a history class – and there are likely more, brilliant, programmers in Belfast than professors professing to teach programming. On a side note, Belfast has always had exceptional programming talent – despite academia not because of it.

Also, sadly, the on the business school side, the pace of change in business models, financing mechanism, the paradigm shifts in marketing and new cultures of selling, have just left the universities struggling to keep abreast of innovations that are happening around the globe, and in their back yards.

And then there are industry associations. Momentum. Even a decade ago, Momentum was at best an old boy’s club. Like a rocking horse, keeps Startup scene Northern Irelandmoving but no progress. That they have slipped into obscurity is a positive move.

Digital Circle. Always had their finger on the real pulse, and now that they are not only dependent on Momentum or InvestNI, have the potential of making a real difference.

Today I’m hearing the invincible under thirties rejecting the shackles that comes with those thirty pieces of silver, and even some of the forties taking risks that they would never have dreamed of a decade ago. Good on ya!

And finally, the mythical unicorn of Northern Ireland – a tech/startup incubator. The need is known and agreed, it’s Startup scene Northern Irelandbeen tested and proven. Yet still the powers-that-be are evaluating it. InvestNI, Belfast City Council, private parties have all considered this, but progress have been limited to several (possibly three reports)and a few (at least two) boondoggles (aka junkets) to San Francisco to gain knowledge and talk to other incubators.

 CAPITAL

Availability of early stage capital has always been the Achilles help of the Northern Ireland’s startup ecosystem. Money has always been scarce, but worse it’s traditionally been dumb money. Until very recently, all venture funds were controlled by civil servants and run by chartered accountants. It will take years, possibly an organizational Startup scene Northern Irelandgeneration, to recover from the disaster of InvestNI’s Access to Capital strategy. On the bright side, the old regime is withering, and there is some encouraging new blood. Until there is some serious exits (and a couple of thirty year old founders driving around Belfast in yellow Lamborghinis), that makes real money for limited partners and angels, tech investing is likely to remain for hobbyists.

SUMMARY

Belfast tech startups continue to show great potential and yet remain significantly underserved by its startup ecosystem. The ecosystem is improving -organically - not through leadership and vision. It is, and will improve, but at a pace that is likely to miss the current window. By the time it’s poised to score, the goal posts will have moved, in fact the game will have changed."


*Like this NI themed startup post? Well check out all our other Belfast Startup posts here! 

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Published on: 22nd May 2014

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