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'Belfast for Tech Startups'- Local tech entrepreneur Dave Patterson shares his story.

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by Startacus Admin

You can’t fail to have noticed that May is our Startup Cities...Belfast Month, a whole 4 weeks dedicated to all things Startup in the lovely city of Belfast...Woo!

The city has a thriving tech community with plenty of home grown brands looking to make it big on the world stage. During a recent Belfast Startup networking event we were lucky enough to run into one such company ‘Sophia’ with offices in Belfast and San Francisco and CEO Dave Patterson agreed to share this thoughts on Belfast, its past, its startup scene and the future.

So Dave, first-off let’s set the scene - can you tell us a little about yourself and your history?Sophia

I started out my academic life as a Biochemist but quickly decided to get into computing. My career life kicked off working as a lecturer in Computing Science at the University of Ulster and after a few years I took over running an AI Research Lab there, working on research areas such as machine learning, data mining, text analytics and Knowledge Based Systems. Our focus was to solve real world problems by developing intelligent algorithms to analyse the wealth of information that was being generated by organisations. We were working with a similar research group at the St Petersburg State University in Russia and it was in conjunction with them that we worked on the core algorithms that power the products and services utilised by Sophia today.

Belfast Startups  Can you give us a quick idea about your latest venture 'Sophia'?

Sophia is a venture backed university spin out company with offices in Belfast, San Francisco and St Petersburg. Its flagship product Ambiance™is an artificial intelligence (AI) based e-commerce solution that solves the problem of online ad blindness. Consumers have become blind to ads online with statistics showing that fewer than 0.1% of ads are ever clicked on. The main reason for this is that they are so irrelevant to our interests and needs – so we have learned to block them out and find them an irritation. Also consumers are becoming more and more aware of the fact that advertisers often track them and gather personal information without their consent. This is something they feel is unethical.

Ambiance™ uses sophisticated contextually aware content analytics to fully understand consumer interests based on the content they are reading at any point in time and accurately associates this with products they are highly interested in. Through associating web content with products people want to buy, it addresses the issues of ad blindness and also eliminates the need to invade consumer privacy through tracking techniques. The effectiveness of Ambiance is evident from the fact that click-through rates are up to 50x greater than current industry advertising standards. Consumers also value the fact we do not track or store any personal information.

Startups in Belfast

As you know it’s Belfast month on Many in our community may have preconceived notions of what the city is like - what has your experience of starting a business in Belfast been like?

I grew up in the Belfast area and went to Queens University, so I am definitely a local. Obviously there has been an enormous amount of change in the city over the last 20 years for the better and in many ways it is easier to start a technology business now than in the past - but many challenges still exist. People in Northern Ireland are very creative and resourceful so there is no shortage of good new ideas stemming from our Universities and colleges.Belfast for Startups

There is also a maturing startup ecosystem with organisations and programs such as the Northern Ireland Science Park, HALO, NISP Connect and Springboard providing office space, mentoring and funding advice to early stage ventures. Invest NI also play their part in helping new businesses get off the ground especially in high growth export led markets. I have always been amazed by the willingness of the business community in general to rally round and help with guidance and advice to new entrepreneurs and budding CEO’s.

I suppose the main challenge we have is that we are a small place with a small population that is geographically removed from the rest of Europe. For many tech-oriented startups there is not going to be a large market at home that they can exploit so they are always going to have to be focused on overseas for growth. In Sophia’s case it was the US market which we focused on - this adds to expense as it is very time consuming travelling such long distances on a regular basis.

The other challenge we have is funding. We don’t have the investor ecosystem that other countries have, especially for startups. This was one of the first things I realised when I first started spending time in areas such as Boston, San Diego and Silicon Valley. These areas have so much more money available to startups and it can hinder our growth when you consider we need to be competing at a global level. Strangely, this actually made me more determined to build something of real value from Belfast and show that it can be done successfully and hopefully inspire other to do likewise. This is one reason why we are building our product engineering team in the city.

The other thing I have noticed is that our talent pool in Northern Ireland is second to none. I have to admit when I first started travelling to San Francisco I was a little in ‘awe’ of the reputation it has for building great companies and I thought to myself ‘what are they going to think of Sophia and the technology we have developed in N. Ireland’? I quickly changed my mind. Our (NI) engineers, scientists and researchers are every bit as good (and in many cases better) than there. I was actually disappointed on many occasions at the lack of technological depth behind some of the companies I encountered – we need to take strength and encouragement from this and believe in ourselves more.

Cheers for your thoughts on the Belfast startup scene- we look forward to part 2 coming next week!

If you are keen to learn more about startups in Belfast then why not take a look at the other articles in our Belfast Startup series.  You might also like to visit the Sophia website to get more information on the work that they do. 

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Published on: 8th May 2014

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