Landscape of support for high growth start ups in Northern Ireland


Jeremy Fitch
Invest NI
Dec 03, 2015

A diverse set of solutions is needed to equip more businesses to achieve high growth in Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Fitch, Invest NI’s Executive Director of Business Solutions assesses the landscape of support on offer in Northern Ireland for high growth firms (HGF) with a particular focus on high growth start ups.

It is a well known fact that our economy relies on small businesses. Government and industry are aligning their efforts to increase the calibre of our small business pool by encouraging high growth start ups to grow and develop in Northern Ireland.

How do we do this?

While start-ups and established firms can have rapid growth potential, there is no common set of factors which will drive accelerated growth. Data from Department from Enterprise, Trade and Investment shows that being a HGF:

  • Is not solely about growing from a small starting point - there are HGFs of all sizes and the spread largely reflects the overall profile of the business base in Northern Ireland.
  • Is not just about the knowledge economy or the service sector - there are significant numbers of HGFs across all sectors.
  • Is not just about being in Belfast – HGFs are spread across Northern Ireland, with the West and South of Northern Ireland having the highest number of HGFs between 2010 and 2013.
  • Is not all about being young - although young firms are more likely to be high growth, the majority of HGFs are at least five years old.

These findings highlight the diversity of our local high growth firms and reinforce the importance of expanding the number of businesses with significant growth potential. We are continuing to develop and refine our approach and the Propel programme is among the successful measures which are helping to boost the number of high growth start ups in Northern Ireland. Already the programme is credited with supporting nearly 120 companies, between them having accessed over £14.5m of external investment and creating almost 270 jobs so far.

There is a wealth of talent and potential in Northern Ireland who need the right investment, advice and support. We are working towards building an entrepreneurial ecosystem conducive to the growth and development of high growth start ups.

The Northern Ireland Science Park’s personalised accelerator process. Springboard and Ulster Bank’s Entrepreneurial Spark initiative are among the wider solutions available to help early stage companies find a route to market for their ideas and bridge the seed funding gap. To date the 50 Springboard alumni have secured over £21million in funding and are supporting more than 600 jobs in Northern Ireland’s growing knowledge economy.

The seed and early stage investment fund, TechStart NI, which has just completed its first year of business, is also playing an important role in developing businesses that can make a lasting contribution to the economy.

Early-Stage Investment Funds, Year 1: 2014/2015

“We have seen angel investment playing an increasingly catalytic role in funding the growth of innovative, born global start-up companies. The number of angels active across the island of Ireland has grown significantly over the past few years.” Alan Watts, Director of Halo NI

Encouragingly, angel investment has led to significant job growth across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as innovative early stage companies, capable of growth on a global scale, access an investor’s knowledge, contacts and vital funding. Business Angel Network, Halo NI and its partner HBAN, (the all-island umbrella group responsible for stimulating angel investment and joint initiative of InterTradeIreland and Enterprise Ireland) reported that during 2014 alone, 48 companies that received angel investment via HBAN announced they would create approximately 700 new jobs by 2017.

A relatively small proportion of firms in Northern Ireland are responsible for a disproportionate share of job creation. If the objective of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy from the public to the private sector is to be achieved, a much bigger business base is needed and there needs to be more firms of scale.

A recent report produced by the Enterprise Research Centre, revealed that Northern Ireland is the best place to start and grow a business showing that more businesses in Northern Ireland hit revenues of £1m within their first three years in business, than anywhere else in the UK.

Honing in on this potential, Northern Ireland’s only equity backed startup accelerator programme, Start Planet NI, has recently kicked off with eight local and international start-ups teams beginning a three month intensive workout to deliver successful high growth businesses.

Bill Liao, SOSventures European Venture Partner (also co-founder of CoderDojo and founder of, is leading the delivery of the programme. He comments: "Attracting talent from all over the world is essential to boost the Belfast Tech Cluster and a world class accelerator has that ability so it is with tremendous foresight that Invest NI has made StartPlanet NI happen".

“We found the experience hugely beneficial and it’s great that the accelerator model is being adopted in Northern Ireland. We wanted to scale the business and focus on opportunities in other English speaking markets. Securing a place on the 500 Startups accelerator was a positive development for us, providing a prestigious platform from which to leverage new business.” Leona McAllister, PlotBox

One local business working towards global success is Portgleone based PlotBox - an easy-to-use cloud solution for cemeteries that is revolutionising the death industry. Owners of award winning business, Sean and Leona McAllister, recently participated in US Accelerator - 500 Startups and have returned to Northern Ireland with expansion plans having secured new investment of $550,000.

The ambitious County Antrim entrepreneurs have benefited from wide ranging support along their start up journey; completing their business plan with the Regional Start Initiative, honing the potential of their business idea through the Propel Programme, refining its product with research and development grants and securing seed funding through TechStart NI. The business has also benefited from an Innovation Voucher, Finance Voucher, as well as marketing support and an employment grant through our Jobs Fund.

Initiatives such as Propel, NISP, Halo NI and most recently the StartPlanet accelerator form part of a coherent set of solutions designed to maximise the growth and economic development of early stage high potential start-ups with the potential to rapidly scale in global markets.

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