One-third of all funding to support business in the North by its economic development agency Invest NI between 2011 and 2014 went to Queen's University Belfast, Ulster University and the UK government body responsible for boosting the film industry.
NI Screen, together with the two universities which also receive millions of pounds annually from Stormont's Department for Employment and Learning, was offered a total of £107million from Invest NI.
Over the same period, 2,792 other firms in Northern Ireland shared £216 million Invest NI funding.
The findings emerged from Invest NI data secured by Belfast-based journalism project Detail Data through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request revealing a breakdown of 6,653 offers accepted by businesses between April 2011 and September 2014.
Invest NI said information on a further £28 million worth of offers could not be disclosed, citing FoI exemptions including data protection and commercial sensitivity.
Research into the figures has raised questions over the level and spread of job creation, while the data has also illustrated a stark east/west split in Invest NI funding across Northern Ireland, and suggested that Invest NI may fall short of commitments to support deprived communities.
Invest NI defended its record and said: “We principally support those businesses that can make the greatest contribution to growing our economy.
“Our support has helped local companies grow to scale, reach new customers in new markets, develop new products and create new jobs.”
Both universities said the Invest NI support funded vital research.
At Ulster University, this included fire-testing which helped develop new concrete fire- and blast-proof panels through its spinout company, Vifkon. And at Queen’s, £7 million of the Invest NI funding was spent working with Almac on identifying ways to treat cancer.
NI Screen said it did not want to comment on its funding from Invest NI.
However, it has used the financial support to attract productions such as HBO's Game of Thrones and Universal Pictures' Dracula Untold to Northern Ireland.
Economist John Simpson said: "Invest NI is an important influence on what's happening in the local community. We have had a modest amount of information on the support it has offered up to now.
“Invest NI has been tested a bit by the [Stormont] Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Office, but now we have the capacity to look at a very large number of forms of assistance, which will better inform policymakers on how Invest NI has done.”
Detail Data’s research revealed that:
Invest NI offered NI Screen £64 million, Ulster University £24 million and Queen’s University £19 million.
Businesses in the east of Northern Ireland received 81 per cent of the funding, given by Invest NI compared to 19 per cent in the west.
A total of 71 per cent of projects which received funding had no specific job-creation targets. However, Invest NI said job creation was only one condition potentially applied to funding, with others including research and development, skills development or innovation, which could also ultimately create jobs.
Businesses in the top 10 for Invest NI funding include some of Northern Ireland's companies earning the largest profits – Almac Group, Randox Holdings, Kainos, First Derivatives and Wrightbus. Although such large companies receive funding from Invest NI, the data shows the firms invest considerably more of their own funding to the relevant projects. The companies are also major employers and pay salaries above the North's average.
Invest NI’s spend per head of population across Northern Ireland ranged from £33.24 in the former Ards Borough Council area to £452.59 in the former Belfast City Council area.
823 local start-up projects were funded. This included initiatives to tackle deprivation with 208 in Neighbourhood Renewal Areas. Invest NI’s corporate plan target (2011-2015) was to fund 1,500 business start-ups by residents of such areas during the current Assembly term.
£257 million of Invest NI financial support was spent in urban areas compared to £66 million in rural areas.
According to Invest NI’s data, it “promoted” 11,629 jobs at a cost of £100 million. This works out at £8,620 (€12,278) in government support per job. Jobs “promoted” are jobs that a company intends to create over three to five years.
Invest NI’s counterpart in the South, IDA Ireland, spent €11.817 per job sustained between 2008 and 2014 – a measure that covers jobs created and sustained to the end of the seven year period.
There are no allegations of wrongdoing against Invest NI or against any business that received support or any other party. Detail Data is a joint project between investigative news website The Detail in Belfast and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action. The Detail is owned and operated by Below The Radar Ltd, a TV production company which has received funding from NI Screen. Fine Point Films, which owns Below The Radar, has also received funding from NI Screen and Invest NI. The companies employ 18 permanent staff