BELFAST is rapidly becoming a major hub for creative technology, and university-supported commercialization is leading the way. But how do we get our best graduates to stay?
When I left Northern Ireland for university in 1996, the creative industries and creative technological innovation sectors were very small. Northern Ireland was known for producing high quality news programming, directed by journalists who cut their teeth on conflict; and for aerospace engineering and shipbuilding.
But when I returned at the end of 2016, the picture was quite different. Creative content in film, television, animation, and immersive technologies was all booming. Almost five years later, we are entering a new and exciting phase of growth in these areas, with overlap in health, social services and education.
Northern Ireland was ranked 18th UK Tech Hub by a Technation 2021 report and the creative industries were named as a priority group in the post-Covid economy document by former minister Diane Dodds.
But this phase is not without challenges. One of the key areas where the region continues to be seriously underperforming is graduate retention, and this current trend is putting obstacles in the way of our growing economy.
After a long career in television and film, I found myself drawn to the possibilities of creative technology, particularly the embodiment of virtual reality and interventions around trauma care. Using a virtual reality article on mental abuse funded by Future Screens NI and produced in collaboration with Belfast company Retinize, I decided to take a larger business idea for immersive technology via the Digispark scheme. , a customer discovery process at Qubis, co-founded with Techstart Subsidies.
It was a valuable experience that gave me a glimpse of the landscape, and also a chance to experience the university’s commercialization process firsthand. Qubis was ranked number one in the UK for research commercialization in 2019 and 2020, and performs cutting-edge work in areas such as life sciences, drug delivery, therapeutics and AI for health.
However, their work in the creative industries was very limited and no one in film studies had ever approached them with a marketing idea before. The fact that I did it tells a story about how the tech and creative industries are collaborating in new and exciting ways. The Digispark program is part of a push into more diverse industries for Queen’s, and Qubis recently launched a £ 1.2million investment fund.
Future Screens NI was created as part of the Creative Cluster of the City Deal. It includes both NI universities and creative industry partners including NI Screen, BBC, RTE, Belfast City Council, Digital Catapult, Techstart NI, and Invest NI, among others.
Under the guidance of Professor Paul Moore at the University of Ulster, in a short period of time he left a great impression on the landscape of creative technology. In addition to his open calls for proof of concept and pre-commercial funding, he manages mentorship and funding programs for creatives looking to enter the tech space, and collaborates with NI Screen on new talent initiatives.
I am also passionate about nurturing women in the creative tech space and am part of the Irish founders organization Awakenhub, which just announced an initiative funded by Ulster Bank, and Women in Business NI, based in Belfast.
A lot can be done to open up opportunities for women here, and the Innovate UK Women in Innovation fund is a good start. A recent report found that in 2020, only 2.4% of global venture capital funding went to female founding teams. Likewise, only 5 percent of VC partner roles were held by women.
While excited about the potential of creative technology here, I recently came across an article in the Financial Times about the “brain drain” of young graduates, which was disheartening to read.
I fled to Britain in 1996, two years before the Good Friday Agreement, and I was there for over 20 years. But Northern Ireland now has much more growth potential. There is a real need for industry-led retention programs in our universities and cross-border initiatives, to sustain the post-Brexit economy here. The way to avoid a return to the pre-GFA days is with school retention – and young people starting businesses.
:: Lucy Baxter is a BAFTA-winning filmmaker and educator