Horn sees potential for Northern Ireland
The founder of Iona Technologies believes in the wealth of tech potential in the North
When someone with a reputation like Chris Horn starts talking about the potential for the local technology sector in Northern Ireland, it is time to sit up and start listening. Horn has a habit of making people do that.
He is founder and former chief executive and chairman of Iona Technologies, the Irish success that was, as Horn describes it, once “one of the largest top 10 software companies by revenue in the world”.
The tale of how Horn, Seán Baker and Annrai O’Toole started Iona as a spin-out from Trinity College, with an investment of just €1,250 each, developing it into a global star that was ultimately sold to US group Progress in a €162 mill- ion deal, has become part of water-cooler folklore.
It will be doing the rounds again this week in the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast, where Horn has become the new chair of the NISP Connect initiative – a non-profit organisation established to help novice entrepreneurs and support promising technology and early start-ups.
He is more than familiar with the science park – he is the chairman of Sophia Search, an up-and-coming company based there which emerged from a collaboration between the University of Ulster and St Petersburg State University.
The company has developed specialist search engine software and is, according to Horn, a great example of the wealth of “talent and potential” that exists in Northern Ireland.
“In my view, there is really good technology, there are really good people, but where is the driving force that wants to take it to market? There have been some great technology success stories but I think there could be lots more,” Horn says.
“Some people just need help and a push to make it happen.”
He believes the technology sector in Belfast and across the North is generally where Dublin was 15 to 20 years ago.
“What is missing is the experience. People in Belfast are very aspirational but they just don’t have the experience on board to get to the next level,” Horn says. “That might mean that companies with good technology need to look at getting a CEO on board who has done it all before and can show them where to go, giving them the confidence and self- belief that they can do it.”
He also believes that Northern Ireland needs to develop its technology infrastructure. “I think the networks are under-developed, the informal net- works where people get to know what’s going on in the industry both at a local level and what the gossip is, for example, in the Valley, London and Berlin.
“I know that is changing and developing and people are building new networks all the time in Belfast. It is really important to grow personal connections because they create opportunities and that is all-important when you want to commercialise technology.”
Horn is genuinely enthusiastic about joining NISP Connect.
“It is a very exciting time for the technology sector in Northern Ireland and I want to help. I want to be there to celebrate Northern Ireland’s high-tech successes. There are already great examples and there will be more.
“You need to celebrate success because you have to get the message out to inspire younger people: we need to build heroes in Northern Ireland.”
Luck and timing
Keen to share what he has learnt since setting up Iona Technologies 22 years ago, he also advises that the all-important combination of “luck and timing” is important to success.
“I have always been a risk- taker. I think that is what being an entrepreneur is about – taking a risk, but I also think that you make your own luck. You can, as they talk about in America, just catch the wave exactly at the right time – and if one doesn’t work out, you look around for the next.
“It is the same with business and technology. If something isn’t working out, you have got to accept that and close it down and look around for the next opportunity.”