Digital Derry: where technology and culture meet

20 Aug 2013

Paul McElvaney, CEO of Learning Pool, with Mary McKenna, chair of Digital Circle, McElvaney's business partner and co-founder of Learning Pool (photo by Paul Clarke)

For those seeking out culture on the island of Ireland, Derry is a good place to start. The UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport certainly thinks so, having awarded the city its inaugural City of Culture title for 2013.

It may play second fiddle to Northern Ireland’s capital city of Belfast, yet this recognition shines a spotlight on the island’s fourth-largest city and Derry is taking this opportunity to highlight both its history and its modernity, as well as a tech start-up scene that could rival that of Dublin and Belfast.

Paul McElvaney, an entrepreneur, is no stranger to Derry’s start-up scene. In fact, he’s somewhat of a leader in it. Now CEO of Learning Pool, an e-learning firm that has saved the public sector about stg£100m in the last five years, he said Derry’s size works to start-ups’ advantage. “It’s clearly smaller compared to a hub like Dublin but, when you’re a start-up – which the tech scene in Derry is – small is good. It means you can be agile,” he said.

Future Human

While McElvaney helps build a tech community in Derry, Mary McKenna, his business partner and co-founder of Learning Pool, has a wider focus. As chair of Digital Circle, a representative organisation for Northern Ireland’s digital content industry, she aims to promote the tech sector in and outside of Northern Ireland.

To date, Digital Circle has worked with about 300 companies across Northern Ireland and now has about 2,000 members. Their industry knowledge has been recognised by the UK government, which asks the organisation to assist in assessing companies applying for funding. “Our members have expertise in recognising good projects and bad projects,” said McKenna.

For her own business, McKenna focuses her talents in Derry, where Learning Pool is based. And one thing she knows is the importance of building community. “Everything in life is about people and networking. Nothing else really matters,” she said.

While McElvaney said Derry is not a location currently known for its depth of technological success, he and his cohorts are working hard to change that.

Benefits of Derry

First of all, Derry has all the key elements needed to form a hive of start-up activity. There’s the University of Ulster churning out fresh and hungry talent on a yearly basis. There’s a young population – more than 70pc of whom are under 55, 2011 census information shows. And there’s the infrastructure required for tech to work, plus plenty of support for digital business. “Proof of the pudding is obviously in the eating and the success of Learning Pool says that you can build and grow a great digital business in Derry if you work hard at it,” said McElvaney.

McElvaney is one of the founders of Digital Derry, an initiative started in 2010 to realise Derry’s potential as a digital hub. “We’ve probably doubled the number of start-ups in Derry and, as a result of that, there is a really exciting hotbed of early stage companies in really cool industries,” he said.

These industries include animation, film, music, gaming and app development and these companies are trying to achieve what every other start-up in the world is trying to achieve: to build a scalable, successful international business.

Digital Derry’s success stories include 360Production, which is behind one of the first paid channels on YouTube, and McElvaney also said one of the animation companies is currently working on what could be the next Peppa Pig.

“Derry is a place that’s full of storytellers and those storytellers tell their stories through art, through music, through film, through poetry, and that’s a historical legacy that’s really part of the fabric that is Derry,” he said.

Where tech and culture meet

To McElvaney, Derry is a city where technology and culture combine. No surprise, then, that he is also heavily involved in CultureTech, a multimedia festival of music, art and technology. Over five days from 9 September, the city is expecting 30,000 visitors to the festival and, through the generous support of its sponsors, the organisers have managed to keep much of the programme free to access for all.

By opening up this world to the general public, CultureTech gives entrepreneurs a unique opportunity to connect with their potential customers. Start-ups can gather market intelligence from visitors trying out their prototypes – a valuable insight for any business at the early stage.

While business-minded to a degree, CultureTech is, at its core, an informal festival. There won’t be any PowerPoint presentations and many of the speakers haven’t been paid much more than the cost of their flight. “The focus is really on getting hands-on with conversations that will happen in pubs, in restaurants, on the side of the street, on the Peace Bridge in Derry,” said McElvaney, who expects events to attract people with ideas, as well as the people who know how to make those ideas real.

Now in its second year, CultureTech has officially established itself as an annual festival, yet that’s not where the story ends. “The business plan for CultureTech is for it to grow into a bigger company with a bigger festival and a bigger story to tell,” said McElvaney. Last year’s event has been chalked up as a success by those involved and, judging by feedback between then and the run-up to the upcoming event in September, McElvaney reckons it’s here to stay.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 18 August

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic