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TMCNet:  Belfast: Two years ago, the city had no startups; now there are many - and they have their own island to work on

[January 11, 2014]

Belfast: Two years ago, the city had no startups; now there are many - and they have their own island to work on

(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Less than a decade ago, the patch of land in Belfast harbour formerly known as Queen's Island was a wasteland. The shipyards that built the Titanic had fallen into decline. Today, rebranded the Titanic Quarter, it is the focus of a pounds 7bn regeneration project that has yielded a Titanic-themed visitor centre, a college campus and one of Europe's largest film studios.


The island is also home to a new generation of tech innovators. At the Northern Ireland Science Park, more than 110 companies are working to re-establish Belfast as a centre of scientific and technological excellence.

A few years ago, Belfast had no recognisable startup scene, but the tech community has passionate advocates in groups such as Digital Circle (see below) and the University of Ulster's Office of Innovation. Belfast now has meet-ups and coding groups, hackerspaces (such as Farset Labs) and a credible angel investor network, Halo. "Belfast is good for young people," says Mary McKenna, CEO of Learning Pool and chair of Digital Circle. "It has a lively social scene, costs are lower, there's space, it's well connected. If I were starting a tech business today, I'd start it here." AIRPOS Martin Neill co-founder and CEO Founded 2009 Headcount seven What is it? Software for independent retailers.

How did it come about? Running a Belfast web design company, Neill noticed "small retailers were finding it difficult to sell online". With developer Kieran Graham, he set up a company to address the issue when "the notion of a tech startup in Northern Ireland didn't really exist".

How does it work? The company was an early developer of cloud ePOS (Electronic Point of Sale) software, letting retailers accept payments on internet-connected devices, including tablets.

How are they doing? "We've licensed the technology to Just Eat and teamed up with PayPal on their in-store payment technology, PayPal Here." Why Belfast? "A new generation has grown up, post-conflict, and we must give them something if we want them to stay." SISAF Suzanne Saffie-Siebert founder and CEO Founded 2008 Headcount three What is it? A biotech company attempting to make drug delivery "smarter".

How did it come about? When her TV producer husband was moved to Northern Ireland by the BBC five years ago, Saffie-Siebert, an expert in pharmaceuticals and drug delivery, decided to establish her nascent company in Belfast.

How does it work? "We don't believe you need another drug to cure diseases like cancer, diabetes or skin disorders. Available drugs are good enough - the problem is that they're not smart enough." SiSaf's delivery system allows drugs to target affected areas very precisely.

INLIFESIZE Greg Maguire co-founder and CEO Founded 2011 Headcount six What is it? A games company developing mobile apps and a digital comic platform.

How did it come about? Four years ago, Maguire, an animator and visual effects expert who worked on Harry Potter 3 and Avatar, returned from the US to set up an animation programme at the University of Ulster. In 2011, he founded Inlifesize with games veteran Phil Campbell.

How are they doing? Last year, they released their first app, Fairy Magic, which allows users to interact with fairies against a real-world backdrop.

Why Belfast? "It feels like the community is thriving." BREWBOT Chris McClelland founder and CEO Launched 2013 Headcount five What is it? A robot that brews beer.

How does it work? The brewer connects to the machine via the Brewbot mobile app, chooses or creates a recipe, starts the machine and adds the ingredients when prompted. "It's the perfect controlled environment for making beer, but we didn't want it to be completely automatic," says McClelland, head of product-design company Cargo. "If you make changes, Brewbot will remember." How are they doing? "We travelled to Portland, Oregon to launch it on Kickstarter in September and took Brewbot on an 11,000-mile journey around America. In San Francisco, we were invited into places like Twitter and Square." JAR TECHNOLOGIES James Hunter founder and technical director, and Heidi Nicolls business development manager Founded 2011 Headcount six What is it? JAR provides products for the application performance testing market.

What does that mean? "Basically, these products make sure software and applications work when they're deployed to the customer," says Hunter.

How are they doing? "We're 100% export," says Nicolls. "The market is picking up speed in China, India, Brazil, Japan: those countries are where we've been most successful." Why Belfast? "There's a real buzz and we feel the support is here for us if we need it," says Nicolls.

WOMEN WHO CODE BELFAST Sheree Atcheson founder Founded 2013 Members 91 What is it? New branch of the women coders meet-up group.

How did it come about? A conversation with the founder of Women Who Code, an organisation with roots in San Francisco, convinced Atcheson, a computer science graduate from Queen's University, to set up her own branch in Belfast.

How is it doing? "I founded it 30 days ago and we've just had our first packed-out event," Atcheson said late last year.

APPCAMP Tom Gray founder Founded 2011 What is it? Two-week summer courses in app development for university students.

How did it come about? "Northern Ireland is our heartland," says Gray, chief technology officer at Belfast software company Kainos. "We're here for the long haul, so anything we can do to improve the quality and volume of people coming into the IT profession helps us in the long term." How does it work? "We give students training on how to develop an iPhone app. At the end, we bring in a panel from across the industry and the students pitch their apps. The best executors get eight weeks of working with pro developers at Kainos and access to our marketing and UX teams, to deliver the app." TAGGLED Ian Scott founder and CEO, and Catherine Morris community manager Founded 2013 Headcount five What is it? A video tagging platform with a focus on fashion.

How did it come about? A year ago, Scott heard a friend complaining that he'd seen a jacket he liked on TV and had spent hours trying to find it on Google. The search was fruitless but it gave Scott the inspiration to start Taggled.

How does it work? "Video bloggers or brands coming to our platform can tag the content through drag-and-drop," says Morris. "Then, whether on a blog or social network, they can access the info by clicking on the tag. If the viewer clicks through to a retail site and buys the product, we get a commission and share the profit with the blogger." GOPREZZO Aaron Taylor founder and CEO Founded 2011 Headcount nine What is it? A tournament platform that lets gamers compete for real-world prizes.

How does it work? "We connect brands to gamers through their favourite games," says Taylor. The platform allows gamers to compete for brand-sponsored prizes. What's unique, says Taylor, is "we can take scores from any game and put them on the same leaderboard." How are they doing? They have raised pounds 850,000 over three funding rounds.

SOLACATCHER Mervyn Smith co-founder and chief technical director Founded 2013 Headcount two What is it? A low-cost solar water-heating system.

How does it work? "In essence, it's a black tank on the side of your house," says Smith, a reader in solar-thermal energy at the University of Ulster. "It collects solar radiation during the day and transfers the thermal energy into heat, which is stored inside the vessel until you need hot water. What's novel is the diode heat transfer mechanism, which facilitates optimal collection and heat retention." How did it come about? "I developed the concept through my research. We patented the technology and spun out the company (SolaForm) around the product. It only came into existence last July, so it's very early days." MOF TECHNOLOGIES Stuart James co-founder and chief technical officer Founded 2012 Headcount three What is it? A company developing porous nano-materials for applications in clean energy and other areas.

How does it work? Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are crystalline materials composed of metal ions and organic molecules known as linkers. They act as molecular sponges and, due to their extremely high surface area, are very good at storing gases such as methane and hydrogen.

Where are they? "We've been in a research phase for last year," says James. "Now we're moving into a commercial phase." Applications include carbon capture and natural gas storage.

DISPLAYNOTE Lisa McIlhone marketing and partner support specialist Founded 2012 Headcount 22 What is it? Screen-sharing software for computers and mobile devices.

How did it come about? Co-founders Paul Brown and Andrew Bell have backgrounds in education technology. "They saw a need for software to embrace the rising use of tablets in education," says McIlhone.

How does it work? The software lets the user share their computer screen with any number of devices, including mobiles and tablets. It allows teachers to share lessons or any content from their computers and students can take screen captures or make notes on the app." SIXTEEN SOUTH Colin Williams founder and creative director Founded 2008 Headcount nine core staff and 76 on contract.

What is it? Animation studio making innovative children's TV programmes.

How did it come about? After a career producing commercials, Williams returned to his roots in design and animation. His company's first show was Sesame Tree for the BBC. "I'd never made a full-length TV show before and to think we'd ever win the gig was absurd, but we did." How are they doing? One of the UK'S 10 fastest-growing tech startups , the company has grown 2,214% since 2008.

Why Belfast? "It feels like a city that is going through a transformational process. People have been so resilient for so long time, it's made them strong." DIGITAL CIRCLE Matt Johnston founder Founded 2008 Headcount Current membership is 2,154, covering 322 businesses across the province.

What is it? An organisation to support and promote digital industries.

How did it come about? A biologist by training, Johnston started a series of tech companies in Northern Ireland before establishing Digital Circle in 2008 to "put a shape on to the local industry".

How does it work? The organisation, led by a steering group of local figures, provides guidance to startups on funding, investment, export and business.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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