POLITICAL stability has long been cited as one of the main considerations for foreign direct investors. Well known for its skill level, low cost of operation and position as a global competitor in emerging technologies, there is no doubt that Northern Ireland is considered by such investors.
And this is certainly the case within fintech. Several global tech companies have chosen to locate here as the sector has grown in recent years to employ over 7,000 people and contribute £392m a year to the economy.
With a three-year strategy now in place, the industry has entered a new phase that is as much about encouraging local start-up growth as it is about attracting the £25m of additional investment planned for the next three years.
This is a promising new chapter set against a new political landscape in Stormont. Whatever the next political development, a new Assembly with a government program that is committed to supporting fintech will be vital.
Through engagement across the ecosystem, we know the areas of work needed to keep Northern Ireland competitive. At the inaugural NI FinTech Symposium in March, start-ups, established fintechs, financial services firms, and education providers made it clear that they were ready for growth. So how can the assembly and the executive provide support?
Skills and talents are an area of pressing concern in many cases. Northern Ireland has a strong pipeline of new talent, but the secondary cycle and scaling up needs improvement and we continue to lose skilled professionals to other places.
Career education reform is therefore needed, not only to steer young people towards the well-paying and rewarding careers we know, but to rewrite the harmful perception of risk that exists locally. A culture of entrepreneurship and encouragement to follow lesser-known career paths in emerging technology fields should be facilitated.
From there, it is critical to progress our current seed funding mechanisms to Series A and above. SMEs are currently venturing outside of Northern Ireland to access it and one of our biggest barriers to growth is the lack of support for scaling young fintechs. The appetite is there among founders to find their funding locally, so we need to find a way to nudge investors in that direction.
Finally, strategic partnerships between start-ups, FDI and regional banks will create opportunities more broadly. All three elements already exist in Northern Ireland, but with few links between them, SMEs are forced to look elsewhere for strategic collaboration for growth. Aligning these key players and continuing our engagement across government, industry and education will coordinate the sector and provide a direct pathway for scale.
Although we know what needs to be done, none of this is possible without support at the political level. Thousands of additional jobs may be created in fintech over the next few years as the sector gains momentum and the healthy startup environment continues.
We have the environment to attract more investment; what we need now is essential political stability and collaboration between business and government to improve fintech and stimulate the economy.
:: Andrew Jenkins is President of the FinTech NI Association and HMT fintech envoy for Northern Ireland