How Northern Ireland is helping to build a cyber-secure future

At the recent National Cyber Security Centre’s CYBERUK conference, former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab referred proudly to Northern Ireland as a “world-leading cybersecurity hub, and a top international investment location for cybersecurity firms”. Raab’s comments may have been news to those unfamiliar with the region – but, to US tech investors, it is the number one place to be, and has been for several years.

Northern Ireland has nurtured a small, nascent cluster of native businesses into a global centre of cybersecurity excellence

Indeed, in little more than a decade, Northern Ireland has taken a small, nascent cluster of native businesses and nurtured it into a global centre of excellence that’s bursting with talent, academic prowess and commercial expertise. Together, local industry, academia and the region’s public bodies have seized a mounting threat (which now costs the global economy over $600 billion per year) and carved out a unique role for Northern Ireland in an ever more digital world.

But how has this been achieved, and what does the future hold? Let’s take a closer look.

Early origins

The professional services sector, in the form of legal, financial and business consultancy, has been part of Northern Ireland’s economic and skills repertoire for several decades now, which is why leadership in these areas has come so naturally. From pioneering digital banking to the evolution of fintech and regtech, the region has played a significant role in driving and shaping the future of law, finance and commerce – and it continues to do so today.

Digitalisation has been a crucial catalyst in this respect, creating opportunities for these industries to connect and grow through data, technology and information. This has established a fertile ground for new types of professional services and home-grown success stories like FD Technologies (formerly First Derivatives), Kainos and FinTru, while also attracting major investment from players keen to futureproof their businesses for the digital age, such as EY, Deloitte, PWC, Citi and KPMG.

At the same time, however, the digital world has opened Pandora’s box, unleashing ever-evolving threats in the sinister shape of cybercrime. One of the world’s least-welcome growth industries, it costs the global economy an estimated $2.9 million per minute. The resulting challenges are many and varied – and could potentially counter the many positives that digital progress has sought to create.

But, with challenges come opportunities, and with digital transformation happening rapidly in the professional services sector, Northern Ireland’s cybersecurity sector responded accordingly. The need to safeguard personal, business and government data from theft, protect computer networks against intrusion, keep devices clean of malware and defend critical infrastructure against hostile attacks has generated demand for a new type of expertise which Northern Ireland has been able to deliver in abundance through its talent pipeline and through R&D.

“Over the last 20 years, effective cybersecurity has become one of society’s critical needs. Here at QUB we recognised we had the skills and ambition to tackle this need head-on and, in doing so, boost economic renewal in Belfast and Northern Ireland.””
Professor Máire O’Neill, CSIT’s Principal Investigator

Build it and they will come

Today, the region is home to around 4% of the UK’s cybersecurity workforce, which for an area that represents around 2.8% of the UK population, is just one indicator of its strengths in this field. What’s more, almost 5% of cyber firms in the UK market call Northern Ireland home, helping to deliver its ambition to grow its sector workforce to 5000 by 2030. At the heart of this lies CSIT – the award-winning Centre for Secure Information Technologies at Queen’s University Belfast.

Where digitalisation has been the spark, CSIT has undeniably been the catalyst that’s turned Northern Ireland’s cluster into a thriving ecosystem encompassing finance, banking, insurance, legal, telecoms, threat intelligence, defence, security, healthcare… for the cyber risk is everywhere.

As a result, the centre has not only attracted millions in global investment from the likes of WhiteHat, Rapid7, Proofpoint, IBM Q1 Labs and Black Duck – it has triggered new start-ups, supported over 2,000 local jobs in the Belfast area alone and produced proven solutions to some of the biggest cyber challenges facing economies globally today.

It all started in 2009 as a greenfield site at what is now known as Catalyst, which was previously the Northern Ireland Science Park and part of one of the world’s biggest urban-waterfront regeneration projects. By bringing academia, industry and public sector support together under one roof, CSIT’s partners and funders (EPSRC, Innovate UK and Invest Northern Ireland) believed they could create a hub where leading-edge research could translate rapidly into market-relevant, market-ready products and services. And they were right.

CSIT is now home to a 90-strong team of industry-experienced engineers, electronic and computational researchers, business development specialists and passionately motivated postgraduates. But this is only one ingredient in the recipe for CSIT’s success. An impressive roster of business members such as Thales, Allstate and BAE Systems help shape its research strategy, while close collaboration with FD Technologies, Seagate, Nvidia and other IT giants, and with leading global cybersecurity institutes, adds an extra dimension to its expansive vision and worldwide reach.

“Because we are a relatively small region, the government, the universities, and regional development organizations work very closely together… We are acutely aware of the market’s demands and the types of companies coming in, so we can be more agile in developing novel programs to support them.”
David Crozier, head of strategic partnerships and engagement, CSIT

Excellence in action

As you might expect from a centre of excellence with such extensive global reach, CSIT has attracted much recognition during its short lifespan. In 2015, for example, it won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize, celebrating excellence, innovation and public benefit at UK universities, and four years later, Máire O’Neill, CSIT’s Principal Investigator, secured a prestigious Blavatnik Award, recognising her work as an outstanding young scientist. More recently (February 2021), Queen’s University was recognised for its cybersecurity education program and work promoting cyber-skills by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

Such plaudits are well deserved. CSIT has delivered a consistent stream of cutting-edge, real-world cybersecurity advances – including ten new product concepts with a clear route to market. For example:

  • Working with a US insurance firm, it has developed graph-mining analysis systems that automatically detect anomalous and potentially fraudulent insurance claims by pinpointing suspicious patterns.
  • Algorithms developed at CSIT are enabling a major financial services company to spot malicious trading activity over its communication channels and data flows, protecting against regulatory non-compliance and potentially massive fines.
  • Working with vendors of control systems that underpin electricity, water and other key infrastructure to pinpoint and eliminate vulnerabilities to cyberattack.
  • Helping satellite developers keep their hardware cyber-safe in Earth’s orbit, with enormous benefits such as future-proofing the security of communications by introducing quantum-safe cryptographic algorithms.

Crucially, underpinning all the above is access to local talent, and so far, a pipeline of students have enrolled onto CSIT’s Masters programme, producing experts with the state-of-the-art skills the cybersecurity sector needs. At the same time, 17 cybersecurity start-ups have graduated from the CSIT Labs incubator programme and six CSIT spinouts have been established in fields ranging from content inspection to automated image and video processing.

As you might expect from the tech industry, these fledgling success stories have subsequently brought bigger names to Northern Ireland’s shores: Titan IC, for instance, was acquired by Nvidia in 2020, giving the US chip manufacturer a firm foothold in the Belfast cybersecurity ecosystem.

“This is an extremely exciting time for cybersecurity in Northern Ireland but also for the sector globally… At CSIT, our researchers are leading cutting-edge research in cybersecurity. We are also developing the next generation of industry leaders to meet the huge demand from industry for cybersecurity professionals.”
Professor Máire O’Neill

What’s next?

For as long as the digital age prevails, cybersecurity will be needed, and with that, the only way is up for CSIT and the Northern Irish industry. It is now an authoritative source of counsel among governments and other organisations worldwide (including the London Office for Rapid Cybersecurity Advancement (LORCA), and its appeal as a destination for investors, big and small, shows no sign of waning.

In the past 18 months, for instance, the market has seen a new or increased Northern Ireland presence established by Angoka, Aflac, Cygilant and Rapid7, while a new centre of excellence was established by consulting giant, KPMG. This is the tip off the iceberg.

Thanks to an ever-expanding track record of achievement, CSIT and the innovation ecosystem that surrounds it are set to flourish further, gaining more momentum, for example, by planned investment in infrastructure as part of the Belfast Region City Deal.

A major project connected to the deal is the Global Innovation Institute (GII), which will be a nexus for co-innovation between researchers and industry in data security, connectivity and analytics. As we are faced with the data deluge in our increasingly connected world, secure, connected intelligence will become ever more critical.

So, as with CSIT, GII hopes that by creating a space where local and global companies, entrepreneurs and researchers can come together, Northern Ireland can continue this story of success – and keep playing its part in building a safe, cyber-secure future for all.

Invest Northern Ireland is the region’s business development organisation. Its role is to grow the local economy by helping new and existing businesses to compete internationally, and by attracting new investment to Northern Ireland.

Find out more about how we can work together with you and your business.

How Northern Ireland is helping to build a cyber-secure future

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