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

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.

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.”

A Women in Tech-themed event and startup pitching competition have been announced as part of the upcoming Derry-Strabane Enterprise Week 2020.

The 5th March event, hosted by leading startup community and platform Startacus, will focus on the wider themes of diversity and inclusion, and aims to inspire and motivate attendees through discussions, key-note speakers, workshops, a women in tech startup pitch competition and an evening social and networking event.

The pitch competition will invite shortlisted female-led tech startups from across Ireland to the stage to pitch their businesses to a panel of industry leaders and enterprise experts. The overall winner will be announced at the evening social event and the winning startup will receive a prize package.

Alastair Cameron, Startacus co-founder, said: “As well as inspiring and empowering attendees, we see this as a great opportunity to showcase innovative startups in the local area, bring standout keynote speakers to the city, and in turn encourage more people to embark on their own entrepreneurial journeys.”

Enterprise Week 2020 runs from 2nd March to 6th March. For full programme details, go to www.derrystrabane.com/enterpriseweek

If you are interested in getting involved or sponsoring the Women in Tech event, please contact Alastair@startacus.net

The North West region’s unique strategic cross-border location and pipeline of talent were the key messages to potential US investors during a recent trade mission to Philadelphia and Boston.

A number of focused engagements with industry specialists, foreign direct investment executives and venture capitalists took place during the weeklong Ireland North West trade and investment mission, led jointly by Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council to showcase the northwest city region’s compelling investment proposition.

Potential investors heard how they could take advantage of the unique combination of benefits the region has to offer, including an accessible, connected and business-friendly gateway region (with a foothold in both EU and UK markets) and a compelling vision for greater international impact, a talented and educated workforce, superb quality of life and a supportive business environment.

The delegation also met with the Mayors of Philadelphia and Boston who outlined their commitment and support for the work being done by the two Councils.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke about his ties with the North West and outlined his commitment to build on the positive work being done to promote strong communities and shared prosperity, while Philadelphia Mayor Senator Jim Kenney vowed to continue to work to celebrate our connections and build on the existing relationship.

The delegation included Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council Cllr Michaela Boyle, An Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council Cllr Nicholas Crossan, and local businesses from a range of sectors who met with potential clients and business partners.

The trade and investment mission also involved engagement with educational institutions from across the region, and saw the launch of a research project with Harvard Graduate School of Design, exploring how the cross-border northwest city region could be shaped in light of the economic, political and social realities of Brexit.

For more information on the trade mission visit www.irelandNW.com

North West Regional College (NWRC) has secured a huge €1.6 million of Erasmus+ funding, giving staff and students opportunities to study and work across Europe during the next 24 months.

The funding will be used for staff and students from many of the college’s curriculum areas to travel to partner countries including Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, Italy and even Reunion Island, and undertake training and development programmes designed around specific curriculum, entrepreneurship, leadership, innovation and creativity.

Staff will also participate in strategic partnership projects collaborating on innovative practices for vocational training and education with a number of key European partners.

Bronagh Fikri, NWRC European and International Projects Officer, said the college was also pleased to announce its success in obtaining the Erasmus+ VET Mobility Charter. Currently held by just 14 organisations in the UK, the charter is awarded to organisations with a track record in organising and delivering high-quality mobility projects.

The €1.6 funding boost was revealed at a special event celebrating the success of the college’s Erasmus+ training mobilities and collaborations across European networks in 2018/2019.

During the event, students who have taken part in a range of different mobilities across the world received awards recognising their various achievements.

Philadelphia native Emily McCorkell moved to Derry in 2005. After marrying a local man, relocating to Dublin, and having two children, the family were left devastated when a sudden illness struck her husband. They returned to Derry to rebuild their lives and Emily, inspired by flavours from home, began developing her own hot sauce. Lo & Slo launched in 2018 and in addition to its award-winning Barbecue Sauce and Vinegar Mop, now produces delicious dry rubs and hot street food. You can try Lo & Slo, a member of the LegenDerry Food and Drink Network, for yourself at the Christmas Winterland Market in Derry’s Guildhall Square from December 12th to 15th.

You created Lo & Slo sauces during a very difficult time for you and your family. What were those early days like?

I was stress cooking and force-feeding people! I had a lot of insomnia and I was either baking or cooking or making sauces – anything with food – to take the chaos of our lives and bring a sense of peace and control. My brother visited from the States and saw there was a gap in the market here for an American doing BBQ. With investment help from him, I was able to take it to the Foodovation Centre (in Derry’s North West Regional College), and buy packaging and ingredients. I also got lots of advice at council events and would go and speak to different chefs and butchers with my notebook. I don’t have a business background, so it’s been such a learning curve.

How did it feel to see the finished product for the first time?

It was very, very surreal. Especially because we came out of such a tumultuous time for the family. To see something tangible I could hold, it felt like the key to our future. But it was also really scary. When we took the sauces to last year’s Slow Food Festival, it was incredible. My favourite memory was watching people’s faces as they tasted them. These were strangers who believed in me, my sauce and my business.

How has the business grown since then?

We now have a production unit, rubs and a seasoning blend (with local dulse seaweed). And we’ve moved into hot food catering – I opened up Gumtree one day and stumbled across a food truck for sale locally, all kitted out, so we bought it. After making some small changes, we took it to the LegenDerry Street Food Festival this July. I couldn’t have anticipated how well we did there. I’m also looking into exporting the sauces.

Tell us about the LegenDerry Food and Drink Network?

It’s fabulous. It links up producers of food and drink, chefs, people in hospitality, and tourism. It’s also championing something unique in our city, the Lough Foyle Irish Flat Oyster. It’s about how the food network will benefit the city, and when the city does well, businesses do well.

How has Derry changed since you moved here 14 years ago?

My dad is from New York and I grew up in Philadelphia. In Derry, everything closed at 5pm and I didn’t know how people got anything done! Things have changed now. The only evening option then was to go out drinking, but now there are things like late night coffee shops and more exercise clubs. And there’s so much great food now; there’s an inverse diaspora where local people like Stephen Forbes (from Mekong Street Food) have come back with flavours from their travels. And there are places like La Tia Juana’s, and 2 North, where people who’ve made Derry their home are sharing cuisine from their own countries.

What are your go-to places for food here?

My dad knew all the alleyways to go down for really good Chinese food in New York, so whenever I get stressed or tired, those are the flavours I crave and I go to Mekong Street Food. The Walled City Brewery does probably the best pork burger I’ve ever had. Sean Harrigan at the Sooty Olive is doing really cool things, and 9ine Hostages on Waterloo Street does really good coffee – I like their pour-over coffee. And I love Doherty’s stew with special mince. I don’t try and make it myself, they do it so well.

What was Christmas like growing up in Philadelphia?

It was really normal to get at least two feet of snow. We would have cleared the snow from the grill outside and just cooked on it. It was cold but it was fun. We didn’t have lots of traditions so my memories are different from every year, but my mom always made cookies. When I moved here, she used to send me parcels full of different cookies.

What are your plans this Christmas?

We’re spending it here. We’ll have the Christmas boxes with pyjamas, and hot chocolate the night before. On Christmas Day we’re cooking dinner and bringing it over to my in-laws – I’m making some special stuffing with cranberries, chestnuts and orange zest but otherwise it will be the traditional Christmas dinner.

What would you say to someone thinking of moving to Derry?

Pack warm clothes! No, I think if anybody has moved away, I would definitely encourage them to give it a second chance. The warmth of the people has stayed the same, but the place has changed so much.

Technical fire engineering services specialist, Joule Group is winning new business in United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar following R&D investment. The new contracts are being delivered by the team in Northern Ireland, creating 16 new jobs at its Londonderry headquarters.

The company offers consultancy expertise on fire engineering design, construction and operational processes. Its digital technology platform, Total Fire Solutions (TFS), improves fire safety in buildings such as airports, hotels, retail and sports venues.

It has recently secured fire engineering consultancy services on two major infrastructure projects with a stadium project in Doha and airport development in the UAE. These are multi-year deals for complex engineering projects.

The company already has a portfolio of prestigious projects across 10 different countries from Europe to Middle East and North Africa. This includes working on 10 of the signature super high rise towers in King Abdullah Financial District in Saudi Arabia which will host the G20 Summit in 2020.

John Noone, co-founder and director of Joule Group, said: “We are striving to create a safer world through our transformational technology and are committed to digital fire safety globally. The continual support we have received from Invest NI has been invaluable to the growth of our business.

“By undertaking R&D we have been able to develop our TFS product and secure innovative export deals with globally renowned companies. Business is developing rapidly so we have created a specialist team in the North West to focus on growing in international markets.”

Invest Northern Ireland has offered the company support of over £200,000 to innovate through R&D and to expand its workforce, as well as support towards export market visits. Job opportunities at the company include software engineers, fire engineers, a business support manager and business director. Recruitment is underway, with seven of the 16 roles in place.

Des Gartland, North West Regional Office Manager, Invest NI, said: “Joule Group is a perfect example of how, when a business invests in R&D and in exploring new export markets, it can grow its business and lead to new job creation.

“Our support, both financial and advisory, has helped the company to reach its full potential and we are delighted to see the team grow here. The company’s specialist expertise in the fire engineering sector is already delivering success in international markets, and we look forward to seeing them continue their growth.”

Joule Group’s innovation has been recognised nationally with the Disruptor of the Year award at the Ulster Bank Great British & Northern Irish Entrepreneur Awards 2019.

The company also has offices in Belfast, London, Doha and Dubai.