Belfast and the Digital Economy: Tech Sector Growing Even Stronger

Even if you’re not a huge follower of the digital culture, you can’t help but get excited by the fact that Belfast is now widely recognised as one of the leading tech clusters in the UK. Tech thrives in Belfast, which was once mainly associated with the shipbuilding and aerospace sectors. E-commerce and Software as a Service (SaaS) start-ups have been springing up in the city in recent years – and it looks like the trend to make Belfast an even more thriving tech hub is not going away anytime soon.

The Tech Nation 2016 report looked into the UK’s digital tech industries, and it’s certainly good news for Belfast. According to it, the digital tech sector contributes 5.4% GVA to the region’s economy – the second highest proportion in the UK. In fact, the difference between the digital salary growth and local average salary growth for 2016 was 14.8%, the nation’s first. Which means that we’re attracting some of the brightest tech minds in the country, who, in addition to contributing to the local economy as consumers, also bring in money from overseas customers.

The Tech Nation report shows that 14.6% of our tech companies’ customer base is in North America and 13.4% in Europe. That means that foreign currency is coming in to Belfast – in fact, we’re third in the UK for both those percentages, behind tech powerhouses like Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford. We’ve also experienced a promising 34% growth in gross value added in the last years.

What’s even more promising is local companies’ eagerness to invest in emerging technologies. Last September, global computing firm Razormind announced they’re locating their European headquarters in Belfast, as well as their first Blockchain research lab. Razormind is a big data and IoT firm heavily invested in Blockchain, a technology that IBM predicted will be used by 15% of banks by the end of the year. Blockchain is a sophisticated, innovative system of writing digital records – a digital ledger – that can’t ever be amended. It was conceived by Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin, the digital currency that has taken the world by storm. In fact, Nakamoto is one of the most mysterious figures in the digital tech world, as this person (or group of people, according to some theories) has never come forward to speak publicly and their identity remains unknown despite first making headlines in 2008.

The reach of Blockchain technology is evident in IBM’s prediction, but more and more important figures in tech also speak up for the potential of the digital ledger, including Mark Walport, the UK’s chief scientific adviser. Supporters of Blockchain and Bitcoin look up to Satoshi Nakamoto as a bit of a legend. Brands of all sizes, from e-commerce giants Expedia to gaming staples such as Steam and Bitcoin casino provider VegasCasino, do business in Nakamoto’s Bitcoin. In fact, among its other casino games, VegasCasino has chosen to also feature Satoshi’s Secret, a £0.02 – £200, 20-payline slot machine which pays tribute to the inventor’s contribution and elusive identity. Investing in this tech heavily, the provider has decided to carry out all its transactions and also offer players profits and bonuses in Bitcoin, which is secured by the aforementioned Blockchain.

Belfast currently has one Bitcoin ATM at 25-27 Ann Street, while Razormind has promised to install 9 more in 12 months locally. Certainly good news for the city’s techies and all those interested in the cryptocurrency.

In fact, cybersecurity is one of the main fields another leading Belfast software start-up, RepKnight, based at the Linfield Industrial Estate, specialises in. RepKnight was founded in 2011 and CEO John Reid says they’re glad to work closely with Queen’s University Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) as an Associate Member. The Belfast Metropolitan College and Northern Ireland Technology Center at Queen’s University Belfast both produce large amounts of tech graduates, fuelling local businesses with talent. The most notable sectors for Belfast tech brands are app & software development, e-commerce, cyber security and digital media and entertainment.

So what’s next for Belfast’s tech-heads? Local infrastructure and investor networks such as HALO allow for even further growth. However, experts list limited talent supply, limited access to finance and low sector awareness as our main challenges in taking Belfast to the next level.