The head of Allstate NI has paid tribute to hundreds of staff in the North West for helping ensure the firm’s continued success during the Covid-19 crisis. 

The business, which is now Northern Ireland’s largest IT firm, was established in 1998 to provide high quality software development services and business solutions in support of its US-based parent company, the Allstate Corporation. It employs 900 people in its Derry and Strabane offices, and a further 1500 staff in Belfast. Allstate took the decision to move all 2400 staff to virtual working in mid-March, as the global pandemic loomed. Since then, the company said it has managed to maintain productivity levels and a steady order book – an achievement managing director John Healy attributes to the talent, skills and connectivity found in the North West, and Northern Ireland in general. 

“I’m hugely proud of how the workforce has responded to this. We’ve managed to get all our resources home, and maintained high levels of productivity. As I talk to the leaders back in the US, they are incredibly happy with what we’ve managed to achieve here,” the Derry native said. “We already have a culture within the business of people working from home; we have the infrastructure to allow that to happen, and we periodically test it. But whenever you’re doing it for real, to watch how people respond, now for over 11 weeks, it’s just been amazing.” Staff from the Derry and Strabane sites were “incredibly busy” as Covid-19 unfolded, with part of Allstate’s technology helpdesk functionality run in these locations. “During the initial weeks of the crisis, those teams in the North West helped our colleagues right around the globe to move quickly and safely to working from home,” added Mr Healy. “The volumes have now come back down to normal levels, but definitely they were key to the success of the corporation as a whole as we all move to new ways of working.” 

As a major centre for innovative software development, covering the full lifecycle from design to maintenance and support, the local wealth of talent and experience was a huge draw for Allstate. Asked what message he would give to other investors who are considering the North West as a location, Mr Healy said: “The initial set-up of Allstate in the North West was around getting access to a deep talent pool, not just in Derry and Strabane, but also from hinterland such as Donegal. “What we’ve managed to achieve over the years that we’ve operated out of the North West shows that decision was absolutely spot on. These are really talented individuals who are making a great contribution to the success of all of our businesses. “And the innovation, the resilience, the ingenuity of the people who are making it work, from home, in recent weeks has been great.” 

Mr Healy predicted longer term changes to working practices for many businesses, including Allstate NI. “We’ll still have the office and we’ll still have people who are calling in to work with colleagues and interact with others, but I think it will definitely change our perception around how much we need to be in the office and how that space is used,” he said. “Whenever you’re working in a hi-tech environment like ours, as long as you’ve got your laptop and a connection to the internet, you’re able to connect onto the Allstate infrastructure and do your job from wherever you find yourself.” The broadband infrastructure in employees’ homes has been holding up “incredibly well”, Mr Healy added. “We’ve had very few issues with connectivity for our employees when they’ve been working from home. “It’s fantastic that we can have everybody at home, safe and secure, at a time of crisis.”

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Councillor Brian Tierney, praised Allstate NI’s teams in Derry and Strabane for their resilience and innovation during the Covid 19 crisis. “The global outbreak of Covid 19 created unprecedented challenges to Allstate and how they provide their software solutions and services,” he noted. “The team in Derry and Strabane displayed resilience and innovation in quickly moving to remote working and a virtual office space to ensure their client’s services continued as normal. “Allstate are a shining example to other prospective investors of the talent pool that exists in this region who can meet the needs of global companies and rise to the challenges posed during periods of uncertainty.” 


A new medical training school in Londonderry has been given the go-ahead.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill confirmed the graduate medical school at Ulster University’s Magee campus will open in September 2021.

The only medical school in Northern Ireland at present is at Queen’s University in Belfast.

The deputy first minister said the school will be “instrumental in the regeneration of the region”.

“This is a hugely important investment decision for the north west, and it adds to the executive’s recent announcement on the Derry and Strabane city deal and inclusive future fund,” she said.

Ms O’Neill said the first 70 students would start their training in the north west in 2021.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the announcement was “a very welcome piece of positive news”.

“The Covid-19 pandemic brought the chronic medical staffing gaps in our health service into sharp focus, as the enlisting of retired doctors and early graduation of final year medical students showed,” the BMA’s NI chair Dr Tom Black said.

He added: “This new school will mean more medical students graduating annually in Northern Ireland and then staying on, not only to treat our growing and aging population but to support our health service should such a pandemic like this ever happen again.”

Plans for a medical school in Derry were first mooted in the mid-2000s, and submitted to the General Medical Council in 2016.

In May 2019, the UK government announced £100m for the Derry and Strabane city deal.

The bulk of that, and match funding from Stormont announced earlier this month, has been earmarked for Ulster University’s expansion in the north west, including the medical school.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed the announcement from the deputy first minister but said further detail is needed.

“We need a guarantee from the executive and from Ulster University that the first students will enrol starting in September 2021 and we need to see a plan for university expansion beyond that.

“The medical school is the first step, not the end product,” the Foyle MP said.

Foyle Sinn Féin MLA Karen Mullan said the school’s go ahead is “a major boost for Ulster University and for Derry” while DUP MLA Gary Middleton tweeted that “we must now work towards students being accepted from 2021”.

Hypixel Studios, the videogame developer behind upcoming title Hytale, will establish its headquarters in Derry~Londonderry as part of its acquisition by US-based developer and publisher Riot Games.

Hypixel Studios was established in 2018 as a spin-off of Hypixel Inc, the creators of one of the world’s most popular independent game servers, with a leadership team including Derry~Londonderry natives Aaron ‘Noxy’ Donaghey and Sean McCafferty. The studio has traditionally operated entirely remotely, with a geographically-dispersed team of over 40 developers. In December 2018, the company announced its debut title, Hytale, a community-powered game that allows players to go on adventures in a block-based fantasy world, express their creativity through extensive built-in customisation tools, and compete in quick and accessible online minigames.

Artwork from Hytale, developed by Hypixel Studios.

Hytale has received a monumental reception from the gaming community. It has amassed over 2.5 million sign-ups for its forthcoming beta testing program, and its debut trailer has received millions of views on YouTube. It was nominated for ‘Most Anticipated Game’ at the 2019 Golden Joystick Awards. In November 2019, Hypixel Studios announced that it is planning for Hytale to be playable by everyone in 2021.

Hypixel Studios today announced its acquisition by Riot Games, the developer and publisher best known for League of Legends. Hypixel Studios will continue to operate as an independent studio while leveraging Riot’s expertise, technology and resources to support the development of Hytale, including the establishment of the company’s first physical office in Derry~Londonderry.

“When the question of where to set up came into the conversation there was no doubt in my mind that we should set up in Derry~Londonderry,” said Hypixel Studios Chief Executive Officer Aaron ‘Noxy’ Donaghey. “Many members of our team have enjoyed visiting the city over the years, and as a base to develop many of our team’s functions, it has both the talent pool and – more importantly – the spark of hunger necessary to ignite creativity.”

“As part of our acquisition, we had the opportunity to pick almost anywhere in the world, but one of my favourite sayings is ‘when the roots are deep, you need not fear the wind’ – and Hypixel’s roots in Derry and Northern Ireland are deep,” Donaghey said. “It may seem strange to be announcing such a move in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, but games and home entertainment are now more important than ever and we have a community of millions to be looking after. Our company HQ will be the nexus for these ongoing efforts.”

The present COVID-19 crisis means that an opening date for the new office cannot currently be set. When it opens, the Hypixel Studios office will act as a base for back-office functions and quality assurance throughout the development process. Hypixel Studios is initially hiring 20 highly skilled new positions in these areas, all based in Derry~Londonderry. The company anticipates further growth as development of Hytale continues and the needs of the project evolve.

“Our offices in Derry will be the backbone that allows our remote development team to work effectively,” said Hypixel Studios Chief Operating Officer Sean McCafferty. “There, we will not only have our back-office services such as finance, recruitment and general operations, but as we move through the year we will be ramping up areas such as quality assurance while providing a space for our remote workers to congregate a few times a year.”

“I’ve been in game development for 20 years at this stage, always working around the north west and Derry~Londonderry specifically,” McCafferty said. “It has been my greatest wish to bring game development, wholesale, to the place in which I grew up. Having worked in the space for this length of time and to be finally in a position to help bring a game studio to ‘the town’ is something incredibly special to me – a life-long wish that is finally coming true.”

Hypixel Studios’ office in Northern Ireland is being established with support from Northern Ireland Screen, the national screen agency for Northern Ireland.

Richard Williams, CEO of Northern Ireland Screen, said; “We are absolutely delighted that Hypixel Studios is setting up its latest hugely ambitious games venture in Derry~Londonderry with the support of Riot Games, one of the biggest game publishers in the world.  We are in no doubt that this hard won next step for Aaron and Sean is hugely important for the video games sector in Northern Ireland.   Hypixel Studios and Riot Games can do for the games sector here what HBO and Game of Thrones did for the TV drama sector.“

In addition, advice has been provided by Derry City and Strabane District Council.

Kevin O’Connor, Head of Business for Derry City and Strabane District Council, said: “Derry City and Strabane District Council have been delighted to coordinate with Hypixel Studios over the last number of months. The selection of the North West is a further endorsement of the City/Region as a key investment location. The availability of a highly skilled talent pool, world-class digital connectivity and unparalleled quality of life have obviously featured heavily in this decision. This is an exciting development for the City providing well-paid jobs in a growing sector of the economy “

For more information on Hypixel Studios and Hytale, visit www.hytale.com

Derry City and Strabane District Council has announced another initiative to help local businesses navigate the current economic difficulties casued by COVID-19.

The 100 Day Consolidation Programme, which is part of Council’s ongoing Business Boost initiative, will provide businesses with their own set of cashflow projections for the next 100 days, that will highlight their short-term cash requirements over this period. This Programme is part-funded by Derry City and Strabane District Council, Invest NI and the European Regional Development Fund under the Investment for Jobs and Growth [2014 – 2020] Programme.

The programme will be delivered remotely and safely using modern technologies. This will allow business owners to participate fully, irrespective of whether they are working from home or from their normal workplace.There are 12 places available for the programme, and the schedule will involve two remote workshops with a step-by-step guide to building a 100 day cashflow projection model for your business, and engaging with key stakeholders like the bank manager, HMRC, customers, suppliers, utilities suppliers, staff etc.

There will also be two and a half days of bespoke remote mentoring for new Business Boost participants or one day of bespoke remote mentoring for previous/existing Business Boost participants to assist them to apply the key learning points to their own business.

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council Michaela Boyle said the programme was an excellent opportunity for local businesses to seek guidance at a difficult time.

”I think what we are all looking for at this time is clarity, and that is obviously particularly important for our local business owners.The 100 Day Consolidation Programme will allow them to develop a clear picture of the extent to which they currently have working capital in their business.It will project with accuracy how the cash position of their business is likely to fluctuate over the next three critical months – and what implications that will have for their business in terms of its survival prospects – and, furthermore, businesses can then identify key steps that they can potentially take to free up cash over the next 100 days. Many small businesses owners have found themselves thrust unexpectedly into a tough position, and we want to help them address this difficult situation as best they can to get positive results for all involved.”

Kevin O’Connor, Head of Business with Derry City and Strabane District Council, said:

“We want to ensure that businesses know what they need to do to optimise their cash position and to then actually take positive steps to make that happen. These businesses are the backbone of our District, and it’s important that they can develop as clear a picture as possible of what the immediate future will look like for them, so they can address and navigate any challenges that may arise.Council’s Business team are working around the clock to provide up-to-date advice, guidance and assistance, and this programme is a great opportunity for our local businesses to seek further direction.”

The Programme will be delivered by highly experienced business consultants who have worked with hundreds of businesses, ranging from micro enterprises to some of the largest companies in Northern Ireland.Eligible businesses must be based in the Derry City and Strabane Council area and employ less than 50 people.

To register, simply contact Jacqui at Full Circle – jacqui@fullcircle.eu.com to express an interest in the programme. The deadline for submission of expressions of interest is Monday 15th April at 12pm. 

Derry City and Strabane District Council has this week launched a range of initiatives designed to support local businesses affected by the challenges presented by the ongoing COVID-19 emergency. With new regulations that will see the closure of many local businesses coming into force today, Council is encouraging local companies to explore their options in terms of establishing an online presence and adapting to conditions as best they can to continue the delivery of products and services.

As well as a special Business Resilience Programme, a series of remote skills development workshops has been announced to give people the support and information they need. The series will comprise of 8-10 two hour workshops to be delivered remotely via Zoom, which will be open to all members of the business community in the City and District including past and present participants of the Business Boost Programme.

Focus areas include managing stress, gearing up to sell on YouTube, the impact of COVID19 on local business, and good leadership.Companies can also apply for a place on the Business Online Programme, part of the highly successful Business Boost Programme, now open to micro enterprises and SMEs across Derry and Strabane.

The programme will assist local companies in going digital. Keeping in mind the challenges presented by the current restrictions around social distancing in the workplace it’s more important than ever that businesses establish an effective online presence for both staff and customers. This programme will also be delivered remotely and safely, using all modern technologies.

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District, Councillor Michaela Boyle, urged companies to sign up.

While I welcome these new restrictions on people’s movements, I appreciate that this will have a serious impact on local companies and their ability to do business,” she stressed.”As a Council we are putting in place as many measures as we can to support local businesses at this very difficult time. This new series of workshops will provide the latest information on digital technology and how businesses can take their products and services online and support staff working from home. I would really encourage businesses to find out more about what help is available.

Business Support Manager with Derry City and Strabane District Council, Louise Breslin, said:

“With social distancing being a key factor for everyone – your staff, your customers and your suppliers – it’s vitally important that businesses introduce new ways of working.”These are uncertain times and we want to help businesses adapt in whatever ways they can, and both the workshops and the mentoring opportunities will provide the advice and expertise to help local companies get up and running online as quickly as possible.”

To register, simply contact Jacqui at Full Circle – jacqui@fullcircle.eu.com to express your interest in the workshops. The deadline for submission of expressions of interest is Thursday 9 April @ 12noon.

The Programmes are part-funded by Derry City and Strabane District Council, Invest NI and the European Regional Development Fund under the Investment for Jobs and Growth [2014 – 2020] Programme.Ends​

LIMERICK-based tech firm Deveire has set up a new software development centre in Derry’s Ebrington Square, as it looks to guarantee access to the UK markets post-Brexit. The Irish web solutions company has said it expects to create 15 new jobs at the site over the next three years. Invest NI has offered the firm £97,500 in support.

Set up over 10 years ago, the company specialises in building web solutions for enterprises and large organisations looking to use the latest technologies for their digital presence.

Deveire has delivered platforms that power the systems behind over 50 globally-renowned companies including Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Amazon and the Special Olympics. It has also developed National Geographic’s and Hallmark’s video platforms.

Welcoming the company to Northern Ireland, Steve Harper, Executive Director of International Business, Invest Northern Ireland, said: “Deveire’s decision to locate its new centre in the North West is based on the many advantages this region has to offer international companies, particularly in the software and technology industry.

“With our support for 15 new jobs, the company will be able to build upon its innovative ambitions and expand in new markets. The new centre will also create economic benefit for the local economy, with £582,000 of additional annual salaries.”

Invest NI is offering the company £97,500 to support the creation of the new jobs.

Cathal Murtagh, Chief Operating Officer of Deveire, said: “When we began the process of expanding our team, we were eager to create a base where we had access to a strong talent pool of software developers; we believe Londonderry is the right place to find the talent we need.

“Also, as a part of our Brexit strategy, the Londonderry office gives us access to the UK markets. Invest NI’s support has been invaluable, helping us to build a team whose innovative expertise will allow us to develop new products and grow and explore success in global markets.

“Our Software Development Centre will focus on advanced computing and innovative technical approaches, to build next generation application solutions. It will have a strong focus on culture and people, through our working environment, but this will also be a key objective of our software solutions. Our aim is to create software that meets the users’ needs to allow for seamless experiences that are personal to a user, allowing people to reach their full potential.” The company’s new centre will be based in Ebrington Square, Londonderry

Pictured (L-R) are Steve Harper, Executive Director of International Business, Invest NI, with Cathal Murtagh, Chief Operating Officer, Deveire.

On 28th Jan 2020, 7 students and 2 teachers from the Changchun City, Jilin Province, China traveled to the Derry City and Strabane Region to learn more about our culture; education techniques and to improve their English language skills.

International Language Students from Changchun City, Jilin Province, China, meet with the Mayor of Derry City & Strabane District Council

Working in partnership with the Mandarin Speakers Association in Derry, a number of students traveled to Derry to undertake an intensive English Language course and learn more about our culture.  This year’s students from the city of Changchun/Jilin Province spent 3 weeks in the city undertaking lessons at both Ulster University and North West Regional College. The students and staff also integrated into 2 primary schools (The Model Primary School & Oakgrove Integrated Primary School) during their time in the city and hosted the Mandarin Speakers Association Chinese New Year Celebration in Ulster University on 26/01/20.

These students then returned to China and act as informal ambassadors for our city. The visit of the international students takes place annually and is part of Derry City and Strabane Council’s ongoing international engagement in China.

On 17th Jan 2020, The Princess Royal visited Ulster University’s Magee campus to officially open the new state-of-the-art Spatial Computing and Neurotechnology Innovation Hub (SCANi-hub).

The Princess Royal officially opens the new state-of-the-art Spatial Computing and Neurotechnology Innovation Hub (SCANi-hub).

The SCANi-hub uses cutting edge technology to determine the body and brain’s responses to stress, fatigue, achievement, awareness, error and threats in complex training and performance assessment scenarios simulated in virtual environments. Established by Professor Damien Coyle and Dr Karl McCreadie at the Intelligent Systems Research Centre, the new SCANi-hub will also build on award-winning neurotechnology research at the centre enabling research and education in the next wave of human-computer and human-machine interaction for able-bodied and physically impaired people.

The Princess Royal officially opened the facility which contains multiple mobile wearable EEG headsets, functional near-infrared spectroscopy brain imaging, an advanced car/flight simulator and various new AR and VR spatial computing technologies, vibrotactile stimulation suits and ultrasonic haptic interfaces. Further technologies include those that enable walking in virtual environments (virtual treadmills) as well as a state-of-the-art Smartglass façade to adapt the room for various experimental situations and public engagement activities.

The tour of the Magee campus continued with the Princess Royal meeting with staff and students including Professor Louise Dubras, Foundation Dean of the School of Medicine to discuss how the Graduate Entry Medical School at Magee will provide medical training to help address the skills and workforce challenges felt by the health care sector in Northern Ireland. Nursing students and recent graduates were commended by the Princess Royal for their work in their local communities and the tour concluded with a visit to view the £1.3 million Magee library transformation.

Welcoming The Princess Royal back to the Magee campus, Vice-Chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon commented:

It is with a great sense of pride that we welcome The Princess Royal today to the Magee campus to officially open the SCANi-hub and meet with our students and staff who are making a significant contribution to the health service and healthcare locally, nationally and internationally. Building on our world-class infrastructure and pioneering scientific research at the Intelligent Systems Research Centre, the SCAN-i hub will equip the next generation of graduates and researchers with the skills and knowledge to merge bio-inspired computing and AI and SCAN technologies to address many research and industry led challenges that help define how humans interact with technology in the future.

SCANi-hub is funded by the Department for the Economy through the Higher Education Research Capital Fund.

A new £1m cycling and walking route is to be constructed in Strabane.

Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Planning Committee approved the project on Thursday.

The project will see the district connected with Buncrana, Lifford and Muff

It will involve a 3.5km route connecting the A5, Derry Road, Canal Basin, River Mourne Flood Wall and Strabane Retail Park.

The project is being funded by Stormont departments, the Irish government and the Special EU Programmes Body.

Jonathan Henderson, Programme Manager for the North West Greenway Network, said it is “fantastic that planning has now been approved”.

“Council will now proceed to appoint a construction company with the aim of completing the project this year.”

The council says the project is a ‘key aspect’ of the Strabane-Lifford greenway which will help connect the district with Buncrana, Lifford and Muff in County Donegal.

Councillor Christopher Jackson, chair of the council’s planning committee said: “The completed project will offer cyclists and walkers a wider, safer and more user friendly experience and can play a key role in encouraging the public to get out into the fresh air and reap the health and wellbeing benefits of physical activity.”

There is a growing sense of optimism among Derry City fans after Declan Devine’s return to the Brandywell hot seat yielded a fourth place League of Ireland Premier Division finish last month and with it European football for 2020.

The club were at one of their lowest ever ebbs when the former goalkeeper returned for a second spell in charge at the end of the 2018 season having narrowly avoided relegation with an eighth place finish in the ten team league.

With a limited budget, the persuasive Creggan man made some shrewd pre-season signings including UCD midfielder Greg Slockett and the return of Ramelton man Barry McNamee.

They were expected to struggle though following Aaron McEneff’s switch to Shamrock Rovers and the departure of long term custodian and club captain Gerard Doherty.

The new look side rallied however and, playing a high tempo brand of possession football, they got their fight back, conceding just 34 goals in 36 games and netting 56 with striker Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe bagging 34 goals in 34 games.

The lure of bigger wages from clubs south of the border, and indeed the Irish League, means it has been a losing battle to keep the best local players at the club and it is hard to see them challenging for a league title until they can offer local talent a competitive remuneration.

Last month’s FAI Cup Final between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk was a case in point where North West players McEneff, Danny Lafferty, Michael Duffy and Georgie Kelly all had pivitol roles.

What City can offer however is a proven gateway for younger players to move to full time football in England and Scotland and the chance to emulate the likes of James McClean, Stephen McLaughlin and Ronan Curtis.

With participation numbers strong in the Youth Leagues of Derry and Donegal and Devine’s experience in nurturing emerging young talent, a higher league position and a group stage win in Europe is within their grasp in 2020.