“Invest Northern Ireland’s integrated structure is in place and our new principles for business support are working.” Professor Fabian Monds, Chairman of Invest Northern Ireland said today on the first anniversary of the operational birthday of Northern Ireland’s economic development agency.

“The Agency is already making a positive contribution to improving the economic climate in Northern Ireland and its impact will increase significantly as our initiatives on innovation and entrepreneurship gather pace. The measures identified in our Corporate Plan as being necessary to tackle the structural weaknesses which exist in our economy are now being implemented, including the need to address low levels of innovation, inadequate business birth rates, our small number of knowledge-led businesses and a weak export culture.” Prof Monds continued. “In particular, we have
· introduced a new set of Principles for Business Support which offer customised solutions to help companies achieve sustainable growth;
· introduced our approach to Venture Capital to encourage more companies to consider equity as a funding option;
· established the NITech Growth Fund – a £3M venture capital fund to finance the commercialisation of research and development within universities, new start or existing small to medium-sized enterprises;
· supported the establishment of 17 Centres of Excellence, which are expected to result in a total public/private-sector investment of approximately £80 million and which will prove a critical addition to our innovation capability;
· seen the 2,000th company established under the Northern Ireland Business Start Programme (NIBSP);
· introduced Accelerating Entrepreneurship, our draft strategy response to the need to accelerate business start-ups across Northern Ireland;
· implemented the first phase of strengthening local delivery by opening new offices in Coleraine, Craigavon and Enniskillen, to complement the five already existing local offices, and by engaging the Local Office Network in a wider range of business activities; and
· begun a speculative-build programme to increase the availability of efficient and cost-effective property for inward investment, local businesses and services.

“These represent a few highlights of significant achievements at a time of dislocation and physical dispersion as we have sought to combine the operations of three and a half legacy agencies, “ Prof Monds said. “We will provide further details of the final outturn of our first year Operating Performance and outline the key elements of our Operating Plan for 2003 / 2004. This will include information on how we intend to measure performance and on the rationalisation of the numerous financial and non-financial programmes inherited from our predecessor agencies.”

Expanding on how Invest NI has contributed to strengthening the Northern Ireland economy, Leslie Morrison, Chief Executive, said “In a global market dominated by negative sentiment, our client and sector-management teams have helped many companies to secure existing business and plan for improved economic conditions. We have much work to do to improve our client interface, but many of our client teams are now working well.

“Overall, our existing client companies have shown resilience in the current global economic downturn. Invest NI has put major resources into working with a number of these companies to restructure their financial arrangements and business models. This has improved the viability and eventual growth prospects of companies that are forced to respond to weaker markets.

“Despite this, the current investment intentions of Invest NI’s large clients – both foreign and domestically owned – are at their highest level since 1997/98. Over £300 million of follow-on investment from these companies is planned, to which Invest NI expects to commit a further £50 million assistance . This very high level of investment is a statement of confidence in the Northern Ireland proposition.

“While our efforts to attract high-quality investment from outside NI have been hindered by a depressed global market that has seen FDI fall, we have retained our high market share of British Isles inward investment. We are well positioned for the eventual recovery of corporate capital investment.

“Just as we encourage international companies to choose Northern Ireland as a location to invest in, we help local companies to look outwards. During the year, we have helped some 100 companies to begin exporting for the first time and our targets for companies participating in trade missions and for existing exporters entering new markets have been exceeded. Our new Technology and Development Centres in Boston and Dubai (others are expected to follow) will enhance the foreign-market effectiveness of our local companies.”

Mr Morrison continued “The only realistic strategy at a time when low-cost industrialising countries are attracting more basic manufacturing is to focus on the creativity of our people, developing a business sector that is more robust because it is based on added-value activities.

“Encouragingly, the demand from Northern Ireland companies to move up the value chain has been so strong that we expect to have achieved more than double our Operating Plan target for participation in Business Improvement schemes. From process improvement to increasing use of ICT and e-business, many of our clients are taking steps to improve their competitiveness.

“In addition, many more companies are undertaking Research and Development activities that will result in the commercialisation of research; the COMPETE programme is running ahead of plan. Our approach to Venture Capital and the recently launched NItech Growth Fund show how we will support the funding and activities of private-sector venture-capital funds to increase the local availability of seed capital.”

“During the year high-growth-potential business starts and research-based spin-outs were lower than targeted in our ambitious plan. Our Accelerating Entrepreneurship strategy and Invest NI’s engagement with our universities in technology commercialisation will form the basis of a redirected approach towards new-business creation. The strategy requires changes in our culture, education, tolerance of failure and openness to outside influences; we are making a determined start.”

Reflecting on the overall performance of Invest NI in its first year and his hopes for the future, Prof Monds said “This year’s success has been against the backdrop of lower investment by business, resulting from falling stock markets and stalled global growth. Therefore, deferment of investment by our existing businesses has resulted in a reduction in our expenditure this year. Despite this, Invest NI activity levels remain high. We have laid a solid platform based on client teams and delivering integrated solutions, as communicated in Invest NI’s new Business Support Principles.”

Prof Monds concluded; “While we may be entering another year of recession, or slow recovery, I believe that our strategies and initiatives will be increasingly established within the business culture in Northern Ireland and deliver tangible benefits. ”