Why our universities are crucial to the Northern Ireland economy


It’s an uncomfortable fact that fewer new businesses are started in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK and we have proportionately fewer knowledge-based businesses as well. More jobs here are dependent on the public sector than either the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain, and there are fewer high-growth ventures here compared with our neighbours.

This is changing: Northern Ireland now has the second most rapidly growing knowledge-based economy in the UK, to a good degree this is thanks to our universities. But we have a way to go yet. If the local economy is to continue to grow there is an urgent need for increased new, high-tech, business creation in Northern Ireland. Increasing the number of spin-outs arising from the knowledge-base of both our universities will be crucial to that transition.

Just 6 per cent of UK businesses – those with the highest growth rates – generated half of the UK’s new jobs created by existing businesses between 2002 and 2008. So alongside creating new businesses there is the need to support high-growth startups – those that have the potential to grow rapidly. Not all jobs or businesses are created equal. We need jobs that are ‘future proof’, and innovation, along with the ambition for growth is what makes jobs sustainable. It may be a long process but all major new technologies and market innovations that have created decades of growth (from the internet to biotech, nanotech and today’s emerging green-tech industry), have sprung from public sector organisations willing to take on the biggest risks and uncertainty before the private sector is willing to invest.

This is particularly true for Northern Ireland. Our universities have been critical to starting high-growth businesses. At Queen’s our track record tells its own story. QUBIS Ltd, the commercialisation vehicle of Queen’s was established in 1985 to commercialise our research and development activities through the formation of spin-out companies and to focus on engaging the support and involvement of experienced entrepreneurs and investors from the business community. To date we’ve started around 70 spin-outs – some of global importance – and those companies have been responsible for the creation of around 1,700 high-tech private sector new jobs.

The growth potential of this is concretely demonstrated through the successful flotation of Kainos Software Ltd on the main London Stock Exchange last month. This Queen’s spin-out has the capability to be the type of high-growth ‘scale-up’ company Northern Ireland needs. Alongside the earlier publicly listed Queen’s startup, Andor PLC, the record is that a high proportion of all publically listed companies from Northern Ireland originate from Queen’s.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, as this is one of the fields in which Northern Ireland has a strength. Queen’s ranks second amongst UK universities in the creation of active jobs for companies that it has started. It ranks first in turnover from active firms started, amongst all UK institutions. And this spin-out activity helps retain economic benefit locally to Northern Ireland. Moreover through QUBIS, Queen’s has had the ability to provide capital support to nascent businesses when other private investors would not have the appetite.

But the final factor in this success is partnership with entrepreneurial leadership from outside the University. It is this leadership – as much as our technology– that has helped us create and develop robust businesses. And so QUBIS actively seeks more partnerships with entrepreneurs who are keen to drive the wave of next technology startups.

Queen’s vision is one of a world class international university that supports outstanding students and staff, working in world class facilities, conducting leading-edge education and research, focused on the needs of society. We cannot do it on our own however, we need support from across the business and political spheres to recognise that a knowledge-based economy is a growing economy and that our universities are central to that.

Brian McCaul
Director of Innovation
and CEO Qubis Ltd
Queen’s University Belfast

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