By Kirsty McManus, National Director, Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland economy has long been synonymous for innovation and being a place to grow world-class businesses, whether it be in manufacturing, engineering or pharmaceuticals.

However, the strength of an economy is based, not just on its tradition and heritage, but on its ability to adapt to changing demands and support the companies, entrepreneurs and start-ups of the future.

In an era of disruption across all areas of commerce – and life – recent years have seen a huge shift in the expectations of consumers and businesses.

Technology continues to pervade throughout industry, challenging the normal way of doing things and creating new products and services.

Keeping up with the pace of change requires new and innovative solutions, particularly in the digital sphere.

Thankfully, Northern Ireland is in a good place and already, the region has demonstrated an ability to compete on a global scale as it becomes known as a hub for the development of new technologies.

There is a tremendous opportunity for locally-based entrepreneurs to capitalise on that reputation.

There have been some significant success stories. For example, B-Secur, based at Catalyst Inc, has set out a vision to achieve a value of more than $1 billion as a privately held start up, which would make it the first tech ‘unicorn’ in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year, the firm which develops pioneering heart monitoring technology, announced the receipt of additional funding of £4 million as it sets itself towards the unicorn goal.

Meanwhile, equity funding of £4.6m was announced by Belfast-based Neurovalens. The company has already received accolades for its Modius weight loss headset that stimulates the area of the brain associated with appetite and cravings, which it hopes to launch to market by the end of next year.

These success stories are not isolated. The most recent Knowledge Economy Report revealed that in 2018, Northern Ireland recorded the second fastest growth of any UK region for a fifth successive year.

It also predicted that the knowledge economy could add £3.2 billion to Northern Ireland’s GVA by 2030 and produce 80,000 additional jobs.

There are challenges too, however. For this aspiration to come into fruition, an additional 2,500 skills people would be required to come into Northern Ireland.

It is incumbent therefore upon those with influence in government and further and higher and education to put in place programmes that will allow the necessary skills to be developed and ensure we don’t miss this opportunity.

As a business organisation, the digital and technology sectors represent among the fastest growing cohorts of our membership, while we also support a thriving community of entrepreneurs and start-ups.

What they are telling us is that disruption is here to stay. There is a lot to learn, and to that end, the next event in our Young Directors’ Forum programme will look specifically at the growing trend of immersive technology.

Partnering with Digital Catapult, the UK’s leading advanced digital technology innovation centre, we will seek to find out more about how the early adoption of digital technologies can make Northern Ireland businesses more competitive and productive and ensure our future prosperity matches our traditional strength.