Technology report

Northern Ireland’s Fintech Envoy

In October 2019 the UK Government appointed Andrew Jenkins as the new Fintech Envoy for Northern Ireland, recognising the importance of the region as a destination for one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy.

Why was the role of the Fintech Envoy to Northern Ireland created and can you define the remit of your role?

The role of the Fintech Envoy for Northern Ireland was created by the UK Government in 2018 in recognition of the vital role which fintech plays and will play in the future of the financial services, and as a way of championing the power of fintech across the UK. I was appointed Envoy in October 2019.

As Northern Ireland Envoy, I am the lead ambassador for the region. I work alongside my counterparts in England, Scotland, Wales and the Northern Powerhouse. My role is to help capitalise on what we already have in place here in Northern Ireland and to promote Northern Ireland as a world-class location for fintech companies to do business.

We have a thriving fintech sector in Northern Ireland, but we cannot stand still. The financial services sector across the UK, and indeed across the globe, is undergoing an unprecedented period of disruption due largely to technological transformation. That is why skills and talent is high on my agenda. I want to ensure we are positioned to take full advantage of the changes that are coming.

What part does fintech play in Northern Ireland’s local economy?

Fintech is vital to the future of financial services in Northern Ireland and we are steadily carving out our own niche in the digital world.

It is one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, and Northern Ireland is increasingly recognised as an important destination for new development and investment in fintech. Almost 40,000 people are employed across the financial and professional services sector in Northern Ireland and around one in four of these are employed in technology roles. Currently the fintech sector generates revenue of £7 billion to the UK economy but with the right workforce armed with the necessary skills, the sector’s revenue will rapidly expand. 

This leading role which the sector is playing is evidenced by the Financial Times financial direct investment (FDI) tables which ranks Belfast as the world’s top destination for fintech investment projects and ranks Belfast in the top three fintech locations of the future after London and Singapore. This is a pretty impressive feat.

How does Northern Ireland compare to the UK and other European markets in regard to its fintech sector?

There are a number of success stories right across the Northern Ireland fintech sector. As the fintech league tables show, we’re very much punching above our weight in terms of the sector and are a match for any of the competing markets, whether that be in the UK or the rest of the world.

Indeed, Belfast is the number one European city for new FDI software development ventures while we also have a vibrant and growing fintech community in the North West.

Within the start-up and scale-up ecosystem, the Catalyst Fintech Hub at Danske Bank is focused on growing local early stage fintech companies ambitious to grow and expand into new markets. While Barclays Eagle Labs and the Ulster Bank Entrepreneur Accelerator are brimming with indigenous start-up and scale-up companies who are being supported as they accelerate their growth locally and further afield.

As I mentioned, the financial services industry is ripe for technological transformation and we are already seeing how this is disrupting traditional financial services businesses.

There are a broad range of support packages available for businesses seeking to start and scale in Northern Ireland.

We enjoy strong collaborative relationships with local universities and higher education institutions. Through these partnerships we see courses such as the Financial Technology BSc (Hons) course at Ulster University emerge, specifically targeted at providing graduates for jobs within the fintech sector.

And the Fintech Northern Ireland working group comprises a broad range of stakeholders passionate about developing and promoting our fintech sector here. That level of ‘grass-roots’ energy and engagement are fantastic to see.

Can you identify the growth channels in the fintech world and how these could be further supported?

As I mentioned, the financial services industry is ripe for technological transformation and we are already seeing how this is disrupting traditional financial services businesses.

TheCityUK’s Financial Services Skills Taskforce Report, published in January this year, calls out very clearly both the challenges and the opportunities for the financial services sector. At the core of this are the skills and expertise that we need to develop in order to remain competitive.

We are seeing a fundamental shift in the expertise that our people will need to develop towards technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, data analytics, blockchain and robotics. Skills such as digital literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, empathy and creativity will become ever more important.

We particularly need to address the issue of attracting and retaining talent in Northern Ireland.

Given the benefits which come from blockchain technology, we are only going to see more and more companies adopt it. Indeed, the TheCityUK’s report has highlighted that UK recruiters have seen a 46 per cent increase in Blockchain hires.

Today, around 46 per cent of large fintech companies worldwide are powered by AI. A recent study by Accenture estimated that AI alone could add £650 billion Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy through a combination of intelligent automation, augmentation of labour and capital investments, increasing the annual growth rate of GVA from 2.5 per cent to 3.9 per cent.

We need people to invest in these leading-edge technologies so that we can harness our potential and grow the industry here in Northern Ireland. To do this we need to bring the various businesses and civic leaders together and I am determined to focus on this.

Does Northern Ireland have the right blend of talent and skills to continue to grow the fintech sector? How can the attraction and retention challenge be met?

There is no doubt that we have some of the most talented people working in the fintech sector but to meet the challenges which will face us in the future, we need to address the issue of talent and skills.

We particularly need to address the issue of attracting and retaining talent in Northern Ireland. Currently, around a third of students from Northern Ireland begin their degree at a university elsewhere in the UK, and only a third of them will come back to live and work in Northern Ireland. We need to be imaginative about developing initiatives that encourage talented young people to stay as well as promoting Northern Ireland as an attractive place to come back to and live. I have no doubt that we can continue to make progress here.

It is also important that we create the environment which places inclusion and diversity at its core and which will inspire the current and future generation of innovators. This will require a collective approach of all stakeholders and I have already convened meetings of relevant stakeholders to focus on addressing this.

Is there opportunity for greater inward investment to Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland is increasingly regarded as an attractive place to live, work, study and visit and has an impressive track record in attracting FDI but there are opportunities for even more.

Key investors in the region include Allstate, Citi, Liberty IT and we have seen Microsoft invest in the region with a Cybersecurity centre based in Belfast. Through the work undertaken by Invest NI, the region certainly has the potential to attract even further businesses to invest here and further solidify Northern Ireland’s place as a fintech centre of excellence.

What are the challenges/barriers that exist in these ambitions?

One of the challenges to the fintech sector reaching its true potential is around access to finance for businesses. While there is a broad range of packages to support start-up businesses, I often hear that it can be difficult to find what support is needed and at the right time. I feel it is important in my role as Fintech Envoy to address this and I will be dedicating time to signposting businesses to funds and the sources of support to start up, grow and develop.

The financial services sector has thrived because it has demonstrated a willingness and ability to transform. The sector now faces new challenges specifically around the skills and talent needed for the future. Addressing this challenge will mean adopting a strategic and systemic approach to developing talent.

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