Steve Orr

During the ongoing technology revolution of the last three decades, Steve Orr has always managed to be in the right place at the right time, consistently working with the game-changing technology of the day. He has also enjoyed a long co-operation with the people who created the legendary transformation of once sleepy San Diego into one of the world’s most important tech hubs.

That’s very good news for Northern Ireland. Today, Steve is CEO of Catalyst, a next generation science and technology hub now operating in three locations – a 25-acre site in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, Fort George in Derry-Londonderry and the Ecos Centre in Ballymena – and, because of their relationship with him, the people who led the transformation of San Diego have played an important role here too.

Home to 174 knowledge-based companies with over 2,700 people working over the three innovation centres, the scale of Catalyst is huge. Since opening in 1999, as the Northern Ireland Science Park (partly funded by the UK Government), it has supported many hundreds of entrepreneurs each year and fostered much ground-breaking research. Steve believes the best is yet to come.

Brought up just outside Belfast, Steve studied at Northumbria University before beginning his journey into the tech world. Then came the first instance of what he describes as serendipity. This was the 1990s, mobile phones were taking off and the company he was working for were at the forefront of the second-generation technology being used to run the mobile phone network infrastructure.

With this now invaluable experience, Steve’s company was engaged by San Diego-based Qualcomm to organise and deploy engineering teams to build these networks for them, in the US and on projects around the world.

At the age of 26, Steve not only found himself working at the heart of this world changing new technology, but in a region that was undergoing a remarkable transformation. Once largely dependent on the public sector for employment, San Diego was being developed into a hub of tech entrepreneurship. With a similar population to Northern Ireland, Steve saw strong parallels with home and the experience would have a huge impact on his thinking. 

Despite having gone on to form his own, highly successful, company in the US, Steve and his partner felt the call of home was too strong. “I really love the sense of community here,” he says.

“And, again, it was serendipity, coming back here at the right time. I’d studied the San Diego model close-up and wanted to help achieve that at home. I also wanted to do it in the non-profit area, which is the only way I believe it can be done.”

Returning home to join the team at the then Northern Ireland Science Park (it was renamed Catalyst in 2016), Steve felt the San Diego business model would be ideal to stimulate an eco-system which would enable innovative tech entrepreneurs to develop their ideas, while receiving access to investors, key mentors, education and research.

In 2008, they launched NISP CONNECT, following the San Diego model but customized to what is needed here. The leaders behind the transformation in San Diego were keen to share their knowledge and advice.

 “They took a shine to me after I made contact and said, ‘whatever help you need, we will give’, and, to this day, they still help us.”

Catalyst has been the driving force behind Northern Ireland’s own remarkable tech revolution. True to its non-profit ethos, its income, much of it from rental of its buildings, is self-generated, the surplus re-invested back into the entrepreneurial eco-system.

So, what do entrepreneurs gain from joining? “There are several benefits”, Steve says.

“We help them when they move in. They don’t have to spend hours setting up things like internet connections. We help them design their working space, and as collaboration is key, we integrate all the companies into the community. It’s holistic too, we provide facilities like gyms and meditation spaces.”

Networking with like-minded entrepreneurs and mentors is fostered.

“We facilitate the most experienced, most connected and most successful people to come back and help young entrepreneurs. We can also customise the kind of relationships we already have to help move them forward. Essentially, we make it as easy as possible for them to innovate.”

It’s not just about the fledgling entrepreneurs. About 40 big science and innovation companies, such as SAP, contribute to the entrepreneurial eco-system here. One reason they are attracted is the world class research conducted at Catalyst. This has been an integral component since Queen’s University’s Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology became an anchor tenant here in 2004. It also hosts cyber security and Artificial Intelligence research 

Ground-breaking innovation is also celebrated annually in Catalyst’s annual INVENT awards. “INVENT shows the creativity and energy going on here”, Steve says. “Every year I am shocked by the sheer brilliance of the competitors. What pHion Theraputics (2017 INVENT winner specialising in drug delivery systems) are doing, for instance, is world changing.”

For the future, Steve believes that, despite its modest size, Northern Ireland can be a global leader in areas such as fintech, health tech and green tech.  

“As part of our plans to help create the industries in which we can lead the world, we have just developed a new partnership, called Innovation City Belfast, composed of Catalyst, Queen’s University and Ulster University, Belfast City Council and Belfast Harbour.

“Together, we can customise solutions for the companies we want to come here in every way from building campuses around the harbour to setting up innovation research hubs. This will really help put Belfast on the global innovation map!”