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Innovative IT and tech firms can build on north's enterprising history

Innovative IT and tech firms can build on north's enterprising history

MOST people accept that Northern Ireland has an impressive history of invention and enterprise. They may not know much about Hans Sloane or Sir James Martin. But Harry Ferguson, who invented the modern tractor, and John Dunlop, whose pneumatic tyre is one of transport's greatest inventions, should be familiar names.

For the record, Sloane, who was born in Killyleagh, was a Royal Physician who invented milk chocolate when in Jamaica during the 1680s - boiling cocoa beans with milk and sugar to create what later became Cadbury milk chocolate. Meanwhile, Sir James Martin, also a county Down native, conceived the ejector seat after his business partner was killed in a test flight, eventually saving thousands of pilots' lives.

We also see Northern Ireland's impressive history of enterprise live on in names like Almac, the continually-impressive pharma business founded by Sir Alan McClay, FG Wilson, the global electric power brand created by Fred Wilson, and Wrightbus, whose diesel-electric hybrid buses can be seen on high streets around the world. I worked at FG Wilson myself during the 1990s and hope that some of the get-up-and-go Fred and his sons instilled in his business has rubbed off.

Almac, originally known as Galen Limited and which marks 50-years in business in 2018, was floated on the New York, Dublin and London stock exchanges in 1997 as Galen Holdings Plc and became Northern Ireland's first billion-pound company, understandably attracting much fanfare.

So Northern Ireland's enterprising past is clear. But what about its future?

Earlier this year, Newry-based First Derivatives, one of Northern Ireland's few existing PLCs, reached a stock market valuation of more than £1 billion. Unlike Galen's achievement, this one passed almost under the radar, but it is certainly one that Northern Ireland should be celebrating. Brian Conlon, its founder, is undoubtedly now up there alongside the great names.

Likewise, Belfast-based Kainos continues to go from strength-to-strength, a credit to Brendan Mooney and his team. It now employs over 1,000 people and has been continuing to open new offices in places like Denmark and Germany.

Northern Ireland's story of future success is already being written by companies like this. We still have great manufacturing businesses like Almac, but when we look at FD and Kainos, as well as the growth of fintech, cyber security and other areas, it is clear that the make-up of our economy and the sectors that are driving it are continuing to change. And I hope that Novosco continues to write its own story and contribute to a vibrant economy into the future.

In light of all of this, I think Northern Ireland needs to have a real discussion about how it ensures the right environment to enable IT and technology companies to continue to thrive. The make-up of the economy is changing, but is the make-up of the support structures through education, infrastructure and government changing in the right way too? I don't have the answers, but I think the discussion needs to take place.

We all know the challenge around IT skills and I won't reheat the whole issue here. But suffice it to say that the right skills are the bedrock on which IT and tech companies will continue to grow.

But whilst there are challenges, I see more reasons to be positive. When I look around Belfast's Catalyst Inc I see so many reasons to be optimistic in the companies that are based there - more than 200 firms and 3,000 engineers, researchers, entrepreneurs and executives. Many of these businesses are start-up and emerging firms whose names are not well-known, but I have no doubt there could be John Dunlop's and Harry Ferguson's amongst them.

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