The island of Ireland’s start-up ecosystem is vibrant, full of active entrepreneurs who want to make a difference, and it has lots of potential to become a global force – a visit to any one of the many hubs from Cork city to Belfast will tell anyone that. Recently, Trevor Murray took a trip to Ormeau Baths in Belfast to attend a couple of fantastic start-up events, and the energy in the room was palpable.
One event was Founders Night, an evening where founders and those in the start-up ecosystem can get together to hear insightful discussions and engage in conversation. The other was First Fridays for Startups – Ireland’s largest ecosystem event.
“I know founders who’ve closed deals over pints in Palo Alto,” was one of the memorable quotes of the trip, courtesy of Director of First Fridays for Startups, DC Cahalane. It wasn’t simply a great quip for drawing a big laugh from the audience, but it also spoke volumes about what interpersonal interconnectivity and a bit of we’re-all-on-the-same-team chanting can do for those looking to make connections abroad.
One of the threads that emerged over the two days in Belfast was exactly that – how playing the Irish card can help. More importantly, though, it opened the conversation to the idea that the island’s ecosystem isn’t simply a collective of regional stakeholders; Ulster isn’t competing against Munster (this isn’t rugby, after all).
Instead, we should be focused on creating an ecosystem where the regions support each other, whether that’s through knowledge-sharing, referring start-ups in Galway for accelerators in Dublin, or by promoting other places as brilliant places to work, connect, and build start-ups. The general sense at both Founders Night and First Fridays was that the ecosystem would only flourish if everyone was set on the right path; collective, island-wide growth.
It was an idea best summed up by the line “entrepreneurship knows no borders” which came up during the Educate panel discussion.
That line also underlined the unique position that Northern Ireland is currently in – Northern Irish start-ups can work with anyone, whether that’s the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, or continental European businesses.
There were a great many fascinating, inspiring, and hard-working founders at Belfast’s Ormeau Baths across both nights, and from speaking with them it was obvious that they are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
It ties into the ethos behind First Fridays which is all about an all-island push towards innovation, something that loops in so many people from so many hubs across each region.
Another idea that came up during the Educate discussion in Belfast was the idea of the tech ecosystem as a funnel. The big question that this raised was: how do we fill it to ensure that we get scale-ups? The scale-ups, indeed, don’t need to be successful (after all, there are invaluable lessons to be learned in “failing”). Cathy Craig, CEO at INCISIV, spoke to the idea that funding and supports are there, but they need to be more inclusive.
The backdrop to all of this was the news from earlier in 2022 that the vital Northern Ireland IGNITE accelerator programmes have lost funding. It means that the pipeline of start-ups coming through has surely narrowed as a result. As many as 100 companies that came through that programme went on to raise a collective £50m in follow-on funding. Plus, IGNITE has also paved the way for a number of founders to learn from international experiences – the funding regularly enabled participating founders to travel abroad to meet with international founders and gain invaluable experience and learn all sorts of lessons they wouldn’t ordinarily at home.
So, it’s little wonder that there were numerous calls for increased funding opportunities.
In spite of all that, there was little talk of doom and gloom – many of the founders at Ormeau Baths across both nights were upbeat about their ideas, about the possibilities they have to explore new markets, and about the future more generally.
The mood was uplifting and defiant in Belfast. Talk of exploring new opportunities; of linking in with communities in Ireland, the UK, and abroad; and of how to secure funding in an ever-shifting landscape dominated the chatter, and it was fantastic to see so many people coming together to share ideas and positive perspectives.
Photo: Dogpatch Labs
By Trevor Murray