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NI women in tech trailblazers

Belfast boasts one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the UK, with nine of the top companies ranked in the latest Deloitte’s Fast 50 hailing from the North.

Belfast is buzzing. Despite being overshadowed by Dublin for many years, the city’s tech scene is producing some serious players that are causing a stir globally.

Companies such as Cloudsmith, whose investors include Stripe backer Tiger Global, are helping to make the city known for more than its troubled past. It, and many other innovative start-ups, such as Amply Discovery, Catagen, Cumulus Neuroscience and Ubloquity, are joining longstays such as London-listed Kainos in becoming known across the world.

Belfast boasts one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the UK, and in 2022, venture capital investment in the North reached £139 million, with expectations that it rose higher last year. In addition to this, nine of the top companies ranked in the latest Deloitte’s Fast 50 ranking of top tech firms, hail from the North.

Belfast is also rapidly winning when it comes to foreign direct investment (FDI), particularly in areas such as software development. In addition to seeing more multinationals setting up operations locally, the scene has been augmented by Ormeau Baths and other organisations which have helped deepen links with the wider Irish tech ecosystem.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. The loss of Ignite’s accelerators two years ago, due to budgetary cuts, was a major loss to the city. On the flipside, there are many hoping that the return to power sharing at Stormont will be good for Belfast.

“While challenges remain, there’s no doubt that Northern Ireland’s tech scene is in a better place than it was ten or even five years ago, with several companies taking that step from start-up to scale-up, raising significant venture capital rounds and getting on the radar of larger competitors,” said Kieran Dalton, head of scaling at Catalyst, a local independent, non-profit science and tech hub.

Not everyone is happy with the focus on tech. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the former Northern Ireland finance minister, was recently quoted in the Financial Times referring to a “saturation” in tech jobs locally. Given the gains that the Republic has seen from FDI, it is unlikely that many agree with such sentiment.

That Belfast is good for tech may surprise those from outside the city, but it comes as no news to those who are active locally.

“People don’t necessarily know about just how good the tech scene is in Belfast but it is thriving, and we’re proof of that” – is how Gareth Quinn, co-founder of Kairos Sports Tech, puts it.

Kairos, which was recently acquired in a €15 million deal by US tech company Teamworks, is among a new breed of start-ups that are out to cause disruption.

Quinn, who also previously co-founded Digital DNA, a tech events company, now owned by the Business Post Group, established Kairos with former Ireland rugby international Andy Trimble in 2018. The company’s software platform helps elite sports teams to better manage schedules and communicate more effectively.

Glen Weinstein, a Silicon Valley veteran who took over in the hot seat at Cloudsmith from co-founder Alan Carson last year, is equally effusive about Belfast and the wider Northern Ireland scene.

The former Twilio executive is in charge as the software supply chain management company navigates its next stage of growth. According to Weinstein, who has taken a shine to his adopted city, Belfast has plenty to offer, particularly when it comes to talent.

“This company has every chance of becoming a dominant software firm with the opportunity to IPO.

“We’ve thousands of customers trying out our software every week and many of these are paying customers. Growth is almost inevitable for us and so we are looking to take on more engineers, and are hiring across operations and sales just to keep up with that,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein first became acquainted with Belfast and other parts of Ireland while working for Appirio, the US IT consulting firm. At that point, Ireland was considered as somewhere for offshoring but that perception has changed greatly in recent years with operations here having more of a leadership role now.

“Maybe we don’t do as good a job as we should about shouting from the rooftops that what we have built in Belfast will serve the world,” he said. “I think one of the reasons they hired an American was I have no problem shouting out about the talent here.”

Laura Haldane, co-founder of SciLeads, a software company that provides data-driven sales tools to scientific organisations, highlights the impact of big multinational companies in helping to seed a strong, indigenous scene in recent years.

She notes the influence of Allstate – the biggest tech employer in the North – along with homegrown successes like Kainos in making a difference. She also notes the support offered by the likes of Catalyst, a local hub focused on fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, and TechStart, which has seeded many Belfast-based start-ups. Endeavour, a not-for-profit that works to boost entrepreneurs, has also recently started to do more locally.

“Large companies like Kainos and Allstate are fantastic for the start-up ecosystem, as the tech graduates from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University cut their teeth in there before then moving onto the smaller companies where they perhaps feel they can make a bigger difference,” said Haldane.

Huge progress has been made in recent years, particularly for early-stage tech companies. Dalton notes that as recently as 2014 VC investment in the North was only £5 million.

“A key factor in subsequent growth has been local companies’ ability to attract investment from investors who previously wouldn’t have considered Northern Ireland as a place they’d find high-potential companies to back. About 70 per cent of the 2022 total invested was from outside Northern Ireland and there were several deals above £10 million within that,” he said.

“I think those numbers show that if entrepreneurs here have a good product, a good team and a good story to tell, investors are interested in them. There has been particular interest in IT, health and life science companies but we’ve also seen investment in areas like agri-tech and cybersecurity, which are also strengths for our universities.”

Chloe Ferris, who took over as managing director of Digital DNA recently after stints with Kainos and Northern Ireland Chamber, suggests there are still challenges, not least in terms of diversity. But she is buzzing about what might happen next.

“Northern Ireland has become a hotbed for innovation, attracting top talent and fostering a vibrant ecosystem of tech companies. We have a dynamic mix of start-ups, scale-ups and established companies, each contributing their unique expertise to the industry. From cybersecurity and fintech to AI and data analytics, there is a wide array of sectors thriving,” she said.

“I am incredibly optimistic about the future. The combination of talent, innovation, and collaboration makes it a truly exciting and promising time to be a part of the tech community here.”

The NI tech companies you need to know






Kairos Sports Tech

Cumulus Neuroscience









Vikela Armour





NI women in tech trailblazers

Sarah Friar, chief executive, Nextdoor

One of the most senior women executives in Silicon Valley, Friar, who hails from Sion Mills in Co Tyrone, became chief executive of Nasdaq-listed Nextdoor in 2018. She is also on the board of Walmart and blockchain firm Consensys. Friar also previously served as chief financial officer of Square, Jack Dorsey’s fintech business.

Christina O’Neill, chief executive, VascVersa

A Queen’s University Belfast spin-out, VascVersa is developing a cell therapy product as a new treatment for vascular regeneration. The start-up’s groundbreaking Angicyte technology promotes healing by making new blood vessels, leading to improved blood supply.

Adrienne Hanna, founder and chief executive, Right Revenue

Founded by Hanna in March 2015, Right Revenue is a revenue management system with full business tracking and predictive analysis, providing in-depth reporting and yielding capabilities for the hospitality sector.

Naomi McGregor, founder and chief executive, Movetru

A promising ballerina who was told she would never be able to dance again after injuring her knee, Naomi McGregor has raised over €700,000 for a wearable clothing solution her company has developed to prevent injuries and aid rehabilitation.

Aislinn Rice, managing director, Analytics Engines

Analytics Engines is a one-stop-shop for data and AI services. The company is led by Aislinn Rice, a former sales director at Andor Technology. Analytics Engines is the organiser of Data Belfast, one of the leading data analytics events on the island of Ireland.

Joanne O’Doherty, co-founder and chief executive, Kinsetsu

Kinsetsu has created a modular suite of software products to enable organisations to track their assets such as inventory, equipment, fleet and people. O’Doherty and her co-founder Jackie Crooks received the Tech Team of the Year award at the Sync NI Women In Tech Awards 2023.

Róisín Malloy, founder and chief executive, TriMedika

A former EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist, Malloy found medical technology company TriMedika in 2016. Its flagship solution is Tri Temp, a non-contact infrared thermometer for clinical use.

Naomh McElhatton, founder and chief executive, Dara & Co

McElhatton is known to many as the founder of the Dani awards, and as the founder of House of Comms, a PR and digital communications company. In addition, she also previously founded She Said Club. McElhatton recently launched Dara & Co, which aims to help people build healthier relationships.

Fiona Gildea, co-founder and chief executive, ComplyFirst

ComplyFirst has developed a cloud-based system that allows firms to automate their regulatory reporting. Prior to co-founding the business, Gildea served as a director at TransferLab, a British fintech, and worked for both Citi and Goldman Sachs.

Laura Haldane, co-founder, SciLeads

One of Northern Ireland’s fastest-growing companies, SciLeads unifies thousands of data sources across scientific publications, trade shows, academic grants and VC funding to build out searchable profiles, complete with email, phone numbers and LinkedIn profiles.

In my view: Chris McClelland, general partner at Broadstone, Techstars mentor and former entrepreneur in residence at Ignite:

The deep tech scene is genuinely inspiring here. Venture capital is shifting towards deep tech and time-to-market is decreasing. With the UK spin-out culture being transformed, Queens and its work with ICure puts us in a powerful position. We are seeing more experienced talent and capital flowing due to recent exits and there’s going to be an uptick in Series A deals this year. For founders in emerging ecosystems the lack of experienced pre-seed and angel capital is a common problem – that’s why these exits and increase in scale-ups are positive.

I find founders here are very focused on value creation and impact, rather than just chasing hype. This human approach is particularly important as AI is driving technology forward. We always need more founders, but it’s great to see more student entrepreneurship initiatives, eg QUest at Queens.

We do need more cohesiveness in the community. The new accelerator backed by InvestNI is due to be announced and my hope is that it will build momentum and create the bond that the ecosystem needs.

Where many start-up ecosystems are building upon legacy approaches, I believe there is a great opportunity for us to be adaptive and create a great start-up culture here.

In my view: Naomi McGregor, founder and chief executive, Movetru

The tech scene talent in NI is really exciting. From sports to healthcare, there are life-changing technologies that are being developed. Some of the best in the world!

Unfortunately, higher-risk start-ups aren’t getting a lot of funding. In NI these start-ups are expected to create a novel technology, have IP protection, sales, a board of directors and a developed team on extremely little funding.

Since Covid, there has been a big mindset shift within Northern Irish companies regarding where they are looking for funding. Within Northern Ireland, we have incredible access to research and development funding, including Innovate UK, although this still requires match funding and primarily covers R&D activities.

Start-ups are looking to funding sources across the UK, Europe, the US and the rest of the world. These sources also come with world-class advisers.

Change makers including AwakenAngels, Hirani and Catalyst Inbound Investors will help drive those connections outside of the North. This will drive innovation. We can’t expect innovators to change the world without funding.

I believe securing sufficient funding, from the right sources, will be the transformational impact the North needs.

Source: Business Post