Claire Dowds

Built back in 1888, the year Belfast was awarded city status, the beautiful Ormeau Baths has always been a vital community hub. It began as public baths, providing two swimming pools and 36 public baths at a time when few houses had their own. More recently it hosted an acclaimed art gallery.

Since June 2017, it has been a home for some of Northern Ireland's most groundbreaking tech entrepreneurs, a space where they can create, collaborate and learn from some of our most successful exponents in the field.

For general manager Claire Dowds, it is a logical extension to the work she has been involved in all her adult life. As youth workers she and husband Mark emigrated to Vancouver, Canada in the late 1990s. Passionate about helping young people fulfil their dreams, they invested their personal savings in creating a space where they were enabled to transform careers. It was their introduction to the world of tech start-ups.

After helping lay the foundations for the now booming tech scene in Toronto, the couple moved to San Francisco, creating several successful tech start-ups in Silicon Valley.

They returned to Belfast in 2015, bringing with them a wealth of experience and a passion for encouraging creativity. "We discovered there was this burgeoning tech scene emerging here but that everyone was a wee bit displaced,” Claire says.

"We'd seen these tech hubs thriving in the US and thought it would be a great idea to create a space here where entrepreneurs could come together."

Along with the other co-founders, the idea was fleshed out and soon a building was found to house the hub. "We were looking for somewhere that would be interesting and fun with a creative space but a wee bit different too,” Claire says. 

Within a short time the east wing was buzzing as budding entrepreneurs came together. "Entrepreneurial life can be a very lonely one,” Claire says. "You need to be with people who understand what you are doing, to point at people who have done this before, who can help steer you in the right direction."

It might be an informal meeting over a coffee in the kitchen, or a meet-up in their vibrant events room, but connecting with the right people is a huge benefit in the early days of a start-up.

It was soon clear they would need more space for those anxious to join as members. In December 2018, the west wing, formerly used by the public health service, was opened and now houses two anchor tenants, NI Screen and the Digital Catapult, which focuses on bringing new technologies into business.

It's not just about networking and learning from tech peers. Several programmes to help start-ups are run from the Ormeau Baths. The Ignite programme, funded by Invest NI, runs two programmes, Propel and Accelerator.

The former walks the entrepreneur through the process of starting a company from the initial concept. It explores its viability in the market and how to find the initial funding. "Propel has been a phenomenal success,” Claire says.

"They had 20 spots available for this year's programme and had over 800 applications.”

When the entrepreneurs are ready for the next stage they embark on the Accelerator programme. "That's when they go out to find more serious seed money. They are introduced to mentors, whether it's here or overseas, "Claire says. "That's an intensive three-month programme but they get nine free months in the building."

One of the key partnerships is with Barclays Eagle Lab, which has two members permanently located in the Ormeau Baths. They help with wider connections, not least in growing areas like health tech, mentoring and offering access to potential funding and advice. 

Another important anchor tenant is NI Screen's Pixel Mill, which is helping drive the thriving creative industries sector in Northern Ireland. Initially, an incubator for gaming companies it has now expanded to other aspects of the industry, like art tech. Alongside this, Future Screens NI helps create collaborative partnerships between academic research and industry, especially in the field of development.

"It's a great story for Northern Ireland,' Claire says. "We are funded privately and we are helped so much by the many successful ex-pats who support us. People like David Singleton (Chief Technology Officer of online payments company Stripe), Sarah Friar (of social network NextDoor) and Tony Carson (the entrepreneur son of legendary comic Frank Carson) who do so much to mentor and promote tech entrepreneurs here."

"We have a great story to tell here in Northern Ireland," Claire says, "There's a history of really strong family led businesses and a really exciting emerging tech industry.  If everyone plays a part and brings the best of what they can offer, we have a great future."