Brexit left its mark on EU–UK trade. In the first half of 2021, UK exports to the EU fell by almost 16%. But according to Denise McQuaid, co-founder of AwakenAngels, tech companies in Northern Ireland are now benefitting from closer access to the Republic of Ireland, which remains a part of the EU and is often a launching off point into the US market.
“Northern Irish companies now are really seeing the benefit of being attached to Ireland from a Brexit point of view,” McQuaid tells UKTN.
Described as the “Delaware of Europe” by McQuaid, Ireland is uniquely positioned as the only English-first language country in Europe. This in turn attracts investment plus export opportunities into the US and Europe.
Connectivity is another key strength of Northern Ireland’s tech ecosystem, says McQuaid.
“And Irish people by nature tend to be very generous with their time. So we’ve definitely seen a lot of our companies being supported with probably more capacity than would happen maybe in other regions.”
AwakenAngels is the investment side of AwakenHub, a community for female entrepreneurs, and was officially launched earlier this year. Its overarching mission is to advocate and boost investment in Northern and the Republic of Ireland’s women-led companies.
AwakenAngels was co-founded by McQuaid alongside Mary McKenna, Clare McGee and Sinead Crowley.
The three core components of AwakenAngels are “democratisation, enabling and community” explained its investor relations director.
Both the British Business Bank and InterTradeIreland are signed up as sponsors over the coming three years. It follows the British Business Bank in March announcing plans to launch a £70m Northern Ireland fund this autumn.
AwakenAngels founding team
Creating AwakenAngels was a “natural progression” for the team, says McQuaid. McKenna has won the UK Business Angels Association’s angel investor of the year and McQuaid previously served as GoBeyond’s chief executive. Meanwhile, McGee is the co-founder Innovate-NI and Crowley was head of fundraising and events for icap Immigrant Counselling and Psychotherapy.
So far the organisation has run its first pitch event in September, with its second taking place this month and is in the process of onboarding angel investors.
Primary investment from AwakenAngels will be in the three startups that pitched in September. They are Belfast-based health tech Movetru, founded by Naomi McGregor; Galway’s MedScan3D, started by Jacqui O’ Connor; and professional exam platform Examfly, founded by Deirdre Lyons.
McQuaid points to digital health and edtech as the two biggest sectors AwakeAngels is interested in.
Other Northern Irish tech firms include mining robot maker Tribe Tech, which raised £4.6m last month in its London listing. Belfast-based Enzai, which develops AI governance software, secured £3.2m in seed funding last month.
Angels as part of the group will invest at the seed stage next to “a number of co-investment partners”, as many founders would like a “balanced” cap table, McQuaid says. Ticket sizes will range between £50,000 and £250,000.
Last year, Northern Ireland scooped a record amount of venture capital at £139m across 89 transactions. However, the angel group co-founder would still like to see more venture capital firms investing in the country to “really look at the market closely” and provide more Series A backing.
McQuaid highlights Northern Ireland’s talent as holding high potential.
“From a Northern Irish perspective, there’s a huge volume of great talent coming through,” McQuaid adds.
“We’re seeing varying stages of age I would say, we’ve obviously got really ambitious young university spinout founders, but we are seeing quite a high level of maturity in some of the founding teams as well in terms of age. ”
Beyond the Capital, an interview series with tech investors and venture capitalists based outside of London, is published monthly. Last month UKTN spoke with Manchester’s Praetura Ventures.