Catalyst is putting Belfast on the cybersecurity map

Queen’s University Belfast has a storied history, but today one of its most innovative teaching and research units is located not in the gothic revival buildings at the Botanic Gardens, but in the Northern Ireland Science Park

29th January, 2017
Dr Godfrey Gaston, CSIT’s director and operations director of the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology

Founded in 2003, ECIT is a prestige development not only for Queen’s but also for Northern Ireland as a whole. ECIT is comprised of three centres, including the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) and clusters around the development of systems for data science and wireless communications.

The Sunday Business Post spoke to Dr Godfrey Gaston, CSIT’s director and operations director of the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology.

“We’re quite unique not just within Queen’s, but in the UK and worldwide, because [while] we’re part of the faculty structure we’re very different in terms of our outlook,” he said.

Despite this organisational structure designed to meet the needs of both academia and business, ECIT and CSIT is traditional in at least one sense: the technology industries thrive on research.

“A key idea is world-leading research. If you look at anywhere with a vibrant tech economy there’s a vibrant research institute,” said Gaston. “It’s absolutely vital to have the research anchor there. We’re not only spinning out companies, but also postgraduate students.”

Gaston said Catalyst Inc in Belfast, formerly the Northern Ireland Sicence Park, was an ideal location: not only is it home to more than 150 companies employing 2,600 people, it also fosters direct, and often informal, engagement. “There’s a whole dynamism in the environment. We have simple things like the café open to the public, bringing people in and allowing for conversations: CSIT started over a random conversation with a company in the building,” he said.

CSIT, recognised by the UK government as a centre of excellence, has been in operation since 2009, and in that regard the timing couldn’t be better: cybersecurity has become a massive growth area, and with more and more businesses moving operations to ‘digital’ it can only grow.

Indeed, the region has already emerged as the top global location for US cyber security investment with top names such as WhiteHat Security, Rapid 7, Alert Logic and Black Duck having operations there.

There are indications that even further growth is underway, with enterprise engaging directly with CSIT.

“There is a perception that there is a significant gap between academia and business and industry. We’re trying to bridge that gap. Companies can come in, pay an annual fee and sit around the table, which ensures that the results will be of direct interest to industry. Meanwhile, the engineers have a direct career path within the university,” he said. Through Invest NI, CSIT has been able to attract the attention of major multinationals scoping out the skills base in the North.

“Invest NI works incredibly closely with us and is very supportive,” said Gaston. “Hardly a week goes past where there isn’t a company coming in from around the world, often the US. We often find out later that they have decided to come to Northern Ireland. Many of the companies who come in, we will have collaborative programmes with them,” he said.

Gaston said a major factor in this is the fact CSIT’s research is focussed on real world problems, something that creates an obvious attraction for business. “It’s all around focussing on research and innovation. Others have said research takes large sums of money and creates a small number of ideas, whereas innovation takes a small number of ideas and creates a large amount of money,” he said.

“Most universities hope academics or postdocs will take time out of their busy schedule to create innovation, but we have dedicated staff who have experience working on it. Our funders are looking for not just research but economic growth."

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