Why We Made Belfast, Northern Ireland the Site of Our European Headquarters
One of the U.K.'s fastest growing tech clusters can be found in Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital and largest city. Less than a decade ago, the city was barely known to the tech scene but in 2017 boasted turnover of £875 million ($1.2 billion) in the digital tech sector alone. Now Belfast is home to a new generation of tech innovators and established corporations.
The growing technical workforce and favorable business climate here has helped many companies quickly bring new development operations up to speed. Not only does the city boast qualified tech talent with a large number of startups, it's also a prime nearshoring location that has attracted many well-established companies, including BT Ireland and tech-heavy operations for Citigroup and Allstate Insurance Company.
These factors explain why, in 2017, Unosquare made the strategic move to put down roots here and make Belfast our European headquarters with the promise to hire at least 100 employees. (We've already hired around 50 full-time employees, and we're looking to expand.)
As president of Unosquare, I travel up to 40 weeks out of the year. I frequently visit offices in the U.S. and elsewhere, including our Mexico-based development centers in Guadalajara and Leon. My travels often take me to Belfast, and it has become one of my favorite places. The visits have allowed me to gain insight and perspective on the city, its culture and the evolving tech sector.
In making the decision to establish a regional headquarters in the city, one of our first considerations was the availability of top talent. At first glance, it was obvious that Belfast's lively startup scene was competing with big, well-established corporations for local talent -- competition that could be a recipe for talent shortages.
It turns out, however, that Belfast institutions are striving to build a larger talent base. For example, two of the city's universities, Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University, have established comprehensive academic programs for all aspects of tech-focused businesses. Students are graduating with impressive technical and management skills. Alumni from both universities are among our new employees. I am often reminded that the quality of a company boils down to the quality of its people, and we have truly hit our stride with our Belfast team. There's nothing more thrilling, and promising, than working with such highly educated and enthusiastic talent.
Financial incentives for investment include competitive operating costs. The government also provides substantial tax relief incentives that allow companies to claim additional savings on research and development costs.
The R&D benefit is something that both startups and established companies and organizations should keep in mind for at least two reasons. First, the credits significantly reward companies for investing in innovation. Second, the credit reflects the U.K.'s broader commitment to a vibrant business environment that fosters research and innovation throughout the public services, universities and businesses that provide, in effect, a sound infrastructure for new and growing R&D operations.
Another distinctive aspect of Belfast is the amount of business support the tech ecosystem here receives. When we announced, in April 2018 that we were opening our doors here, we had great support from Invest NI. In Belfast, you can expect a tight-knit business community that understands the greater good benefits of growing its ecosystem.
This business-friendly environment and Belfast's ideal geographic location also present a near-perfect use case of the logistical advantages of nearshoring. Compared to travel from eastern Europe or Asia, it's an easy trip. As economies shift, companies are systematically reevaluating their outsourcing strategies. In some instances -- not all, to be sure -- nearshoring can present a more economically friendly option than its offshoring alternative. Travel expenses, supply chain complexity and hidden costs can at times make offshoring end up being unexpectedly more expensive. With Belfast just six hours from New York and one hour from London, it's ideally placed at the center of major global markets.
A big topic of conversation for the Belfast business tech community is Brexit, shorthand for ongoing negotiations that involve the U.K.'s expected departure from the European Union. Many locals share my view that the U.K. will emerge with a satisfactory solution that will retain vital commercial and social ties between Northern Ireland and the whole of the EU.
My confidence is more than wishful thinking. The EU and U.K. both agree to the principle of cross-border cooperation, and they are working as I write this to sort out the details.
This likely outcome is reassuring for a city that is surging with business opportunities. As a whole, the U.K. digital tech sector is one of Europe's economic success stories, growing twice as fast as the wider economy. Additionally, Northern Ireland's knowledge economy is growing three times faster than the U.K. average, and Belfast is rapidly gaining a reputation as an innovation hot spot.
With a population of more than 300,000 and talent from all over the world, the city provides a mix of everything from culture to food and festivals. Belfast boasts character and energy you don't always find in cities on the rise. I'm excited about what the future holds for the tech ecosystem here, and I'm delighted to be part of its success.