Paul Nelis is founder and director of ChallengeCurve, a quality assurance and software testing consultancy. Originally from Creggan, Paul left the city in 1985 to study a degree in Maths and Computer Science and then pursue a career in IT. He specialised in sales, strategy and development in London before launching ChallengeCurve with his business partner, Chris Bean. This month marks a year since the business established its centre of excellence in Ebrington Square’s AMP building, where it now has a team of 19 people.

Paul Nelis founder and director of ChallengeCurve

How did ChallengeCurve start out?

I’ve known Chris practically all my career. At our previous organisation we both got promoted through to Director level but we were getting further away from being “hands-on” and enjoying our work, so we decided to found ChallengeCurve to work at senior level with organisations and advise them on their QA and testing frameworks and processes.

Usually, we work with FinTechs and challenger banks. We help get them live, hand over to permanent members of staff and then disengage. We liked the cut and thrust of launching a new bank; it’s very exciting. But we decided, instead of leaving behind a good relationship after all that hard work, why don’t we pitch a long-term managed QA & Testing service? To enable to do this we needed to hire our own staff.

Why did you choose Derry as its headquarters?

I live in Reading and have spent most of my working life commuting in and out of London. Pre-pandemic, we always had to be on the client site. But Covid-19 and IR35 [a legal change to off-payroll working rules] created a tectonic shift in ways of working. Applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams were also coming of age to enable remote working to become a norm. For ChallengeCurve, this meant we didn’t have to be based in a costly business capital such as London or Dublin.

We considered a few different locations, but we were won over by Derry. We met with Rosalind Young, investment manager at Derry City and Strabane District Council, and chief executive John Kelpie to find out, ‘Has Derry got a talent pool to support our business sustainably, is there business network, what support mechanisms are in place, what’s the WIFI infrastructure, office logistics – can we do this?’ The Council were absolutely brilliant.

The Council organised a mini tour of the city for Chris and Yann Gloaguen (our business advisor) and myself. Over the years I’d always come back to visit with my wife, who’s from Yorkshire, and our children, who liked getting over to spend time with their cousins. But Chris and Yann had never been before. Walking over the Peace Bridge and visiting Ebrington Square, they were both amazed at Derry’s potential.

How did you start building your team?

We are self-financed, we don’t have any venture capital, so it was a bit of a risk. But as a consultancy, people are our business, so we have to invest in them.

We built our own four-week intensive training programme in testing and quality assurance with the North West Regional College, funded nine people through it and supplied them with MacBooks and iPhones to test our client’s online banking application.

The candidates were an eclectic bunch – we had a former barman, a taxi driver, and a costume designer from Game of Thrones. At the end of the course, we decided to make Derry our centre of excellence and employed all of them as consultants. We then successfully pitched our managed service to Nomo, a Kuwait-based banking app in English and Arabic, targeted at high-net-worth individuals. Our team bridges the gap between auditor, the business and IT by providing the evidence that the banking platform is fit for purpose. 

We currently have 19 people in Derry, based in the AMP business incubator in Ebrington Square: 17 consultants, an office manager, and a sales and marketing consultant. 

ChallengeCurve is one of many thriving tech companies in the North West. How helpful has it been to be a part of Derry’s tech hub?

By basing ourselves in Derry, ChallengeCurve can contribute in our small way to help Derry punch above its weight. There’s a culture of networking and collaboration here which we have fostered from day one. Since we moved into the AMP, we’ve given business to a local web design agency, engaged a local law firm, a local head-hunter, and a Derry accountancy firm. We’re doing work for another start-up from the building, who is looking at the traceability of biofuels, and we put money into the local hospitality sector through hotel bookings and social events.

What Ryan Williams, founder of the AMP, has done is brilliant. We need those office spaces, and entrepreneurs and visionaries like him to create the infrastructure and encourage more people to stay in the city or come back and build successful companies here.

What do you do in your spare time?

I was going through my fourth midlife crisis and decided to get into my running big time! I find it very therapeutic, and love running marathons. My children persuaded me to try and get into the Guinness World Records at the London Marathon. I managed to break the world record for fastest male marathon runner dressed as a nun! If I’m doing something, that’s it, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. I don’t do things half-heartedly. 

I enjoy coming back to Derry regularly. The quality of life in the North West is a big factor; your money goes a lot further, we have great beaches, and I think the stigma of the Troubles is becoming a fading memory for many. I try and catch the occasional Derry City FC game too. 

What advice would you have to others considering moving to – or investing in – Derry?

On a general point – don’t be afraid to ask for help as everyone from the local businesses, community and institutions are keen to see greater investment in the area and they will be very supportive. At a strategic level, I would recommend engaging with the local chamber of commerce and the council.https://www.challengecurve.com

Derry’s Walled City Market has been named local attraction of the year at a prestigious Europe-wide travel event.

The market, which takes place on the first Saturday of every month in Guildhall Square, was praised by the Travel and Hospitality European Travel Awards programme for its uniqueness, customer care, and quality of facilities.

Derry City and Strabane Deputy Mayor, Councillor Christopher Jackson and Nicolle Walters, Markets Development Officer pictured with traders form the Walled City Market which has been awarded the THA Local Attraction of the Year.

It was selected from over 22,000 nominations, with judges saying the chosen winners ‘reflect the very best in travel and hospitality standards’.

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Councillor Sandra Duffy, congratulated all those involved in the Market’s success.

“The market offers an ideal platform for the best of local food and craft and it wouldn’t be possible without the fantastic traders that we have operating at the WCM each month,” she said.

“Whether it’s LegenDerry food or unique gifts, there’s always so much to enjoy for locals and visitors alike.”

Derry has been named regional winner in the UK’s Top Towns for Business competition.

Locations across the UK were shortlisted on factors including connectivity, dedicated space, retail space, networks and leadership in the competition, run by Enterprise Nation in partnership with Dell UK and Intel UK.

After a public vote, Derry came out as Top Town for Business in Northern Ireland.

The awards aimed to shine a spotlight on the UK’s towns and cities that nurture entrepreneurial spirit to make a lasting impact on local communities and the economy.

North West firms can now boost their digital capabilities by signing up for a £1million support initiative.

The Digital Surge programme introduces small and medium-sized local businesses to a range of digital tools through workshops, mentoring, masterclasses and network cluster events.

Derry City and Strabane District Council’s head of business, Kevin O’Connor, said the NI-wide programme would complement the range of support initiatives already being offered by the Council.

He added: “The Surge Programme equips businesses with the knowledge to harness the potential of the most innovative digital tools, which have the capacity to catalyse their growth and development.

“I would really encourage local businesses to check out the range of areas being explored, from Big-Data to Machine Learning, and how they can effectively use these exciting new technologies to fast track their way to success.”

Businesses completing the programme will come away with an Innovation Roadmap and Digital Acceleration Plan and will be onward routed to more intensive supports in the ‘digital innovation ecosystem’.

Find out more about the Surge Programme here.

Some of Europe’s leading young tech stars have gathered in the North West for the Innovators Under 35 Europe Festival.

This year’s event, held in Gweedore, County Donegal, celebrated a new generation of changemakers tackling society’s most pressing challenges as it emerges from the pandemic.

Since its creation, MIT Technology Review has been publishing an annual list of the best Innovators Under 35, from biotechnologists to artificial intelligence pioneers, with notable alumni including Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

The festival, which took place in the gteic hub in May, was sponsored by Derry City and Strabane District Council alongside other regional organisations and educational establishments.

“By choosing this location, we wanted to demonstrate that in our connected world, no location is off-limits when it comes to innovation,” said Connla McCann, director of the festival’s host, Aisling Events.

“The Atlantic edge – and places like it – will be the centre of the new world.”

Plans have been submitted for the new high-tech Alpha Innovation Centre in Letterkenny.

The enterprise campus, which is estimated to cost €20m, is set to be built in the heart of the town on the former ESB premises on Pearse Road.

The development will include a seven-storey building of approx 1,625sq.m (17,500sq.ft) and office and research & development facilities – providing space and opportunities for new and existing businesses to work and network.

The campus will also incorporate a central civic space; pedestrian, cycle, accessibility and moblity infrastructure; landscaping; disabled and age friendly courtesy parking and emergency/service vehicle entry and egress.

The €6m Alpha Innovation Centre has secured €3.6m co-funding from Enterprise Ireland, and the €14m Beta
Business Centre, is being developed in partnership with Catalyst NI.

The project is being led by Donegal County Council in partnership with the Donegal 2040 Strategic Development Designated Activity Company (DAC). It is co-funded by Enterprise Ireland under the Border Enterprise Development Fund and will be delivered in collaboration with the key economic development agencies including, IDA and Donegal LEO along with Letterkenny Institute of Technology, Donegal ETB, Donegal Digital and ERNACT.

The centre is set to provide a bespoke pre-accelerator for early idea entrepreneurs as well as an extensive programme of wrap-around supports for businesses. The Alpha Innovation Centre will build on the latent potential of the emerging tech start-up scene in the Northwest, contributing to the region’s reputation as a great location to invest and do business.

Ryan Willams founder of The AMP

Ryan Williams is founder of The AMP, the North West’s first privately funded business incubator and co-working space, which recently opened a new site in Derry’s Ebrington Square. He is also director of Connected Health, a tech-enabled homecare company with around 1,100 staff in the UK and Ireland. Originally from Armagh, Ryan has lived in Derry for 20 years and is also co-founder of the LAB Fund, which has supported more than 40 local businesses and projects.

You moved to Derry 20 years ago. How has it changed since then?

I think the biggest change in the city since I’ve been here was probably the City of Culture in 2013, when people really started to realise they could do great things. It’s not that Derry hadn’t done great things before then, but I think that year, people sat up and went, ‘We can be great’, and ‘Let’s celebrate what’s really good about Derry’.

And I think in the last four to five years that’s been turbocharged. The city looks amazing for a start. We went to Ebrington because we knew that it was the new Cathedral Quarter for Derry, a place where there’s going to be hundreds of people living and working, tourists in and out of the place, it’s really going to come alive and be a new hub for the city. We have 85% of the new AMP building full, with people in tech, digital marketing, digital media, and it isn’t officially opened yet. Entrepreneurs are springing up because they see confidence, and they see other people being successful.

Tell us a bit more about The AMP?

AMP’s not a single building, it’s a theme for how incubators should operate and create that local ecology of entrepreneurs who all think in similar ways and want the same kind of things out of their space or working lives. The Ebrington building has capacity for about 40 to 45 people. We’re already looking at AMP 3, so we’re already looking at where we might go with another building. We’ll hopefully have some news on that in the New Year.

The place is looking brilliant. We’ve a few murals going up shortly, which are all going to be about Derry slang and business motivational quotes. It’s going to be really cool. We’re not interested in celebrating Elon Musk and Warren Buffett, we wanted this to feel like a Derry-owned entrepreneurial tech hub.

Have you had feedback from people who want to move home?

There are people going, ‘the house that I’m looking at is three times the size and half the cost of what I pay in London’. We have one of the best school systems that you’ll see in any part of Europe, with award-winning educators. We’ve got Benone Beach and Donegal on our doorstep. Why would you not want to live and work here!

I think we need to tell our 17 and 18-year-olds that you don’t need to go to Liverpool or London, if fact your quality of life here will be better, your job opportunities will be better in many cases, don’t think that you need to leave. And we’ve got to keep that talent and that wealth locally where we can. Earning £40k a year in London and earning £30k a year in Derry, your lifestyle is completely different.

Where did the idea for the LAB fund come from?

Four and a half or five years ago, we came up with this concept called Your Derry to celebrate global success stories, individuals and businesses. There are now 16,000 people on that Facebook platform, including diaspora around the world. But what we realised really quickly was look, that’s all fine, but how do we help people to get going, create social enterprises, give them a few quid to do something positive in the city, help small entrepreneurs to get started? If you look at Elemental’s success story in Derry, the founders started with £500. Now it’s a multi-million-pound business. So, we thought, we really need a fund. What if we get £20.24 a month off local people and businesses, less than a gym membership, put it into a pot and we give it away every quarter? We’ve supported 42 SMEs, local entrepreneurs, social enterprises, community projects including the likes of Storefront NI streetwear and Devine Scents. It’s not a fortune, it’s between £500 and up to £2000. It’s also quite supportive, we can match people up with mentors. I think it’s a lovely thing. A small amount of money that makes quite a bit of difference.

The pandemic was a challenging time for homecare providers. How did Connected Health cope?

We grew by 30% during Covid. A lot of our competitors pulled the shutters down; we said, we’re actually going to recruit, because homecare is going to be one of the last bastions that older and vulnerable people have. We also came up with things like Covid dedicated teams. The incidence of Covid in homecare was miniscule in comparison with care homes. So if I looked at the peak 12 months of Covid, we had 52 staff infections out of 1,100 staff. We had really good PPE adherence. We got PPE in January 2020 knowing this was coming. We also had dedicated Covid carers who only looked after Covid positive patients. Our two Irish Carers of the Year [Limavady sisters Lauren and Chloe Kelly] moved in with one of our vulnerable clients for two and a half weeks, when she got Covid. That’s the kind of carers we employ and keep. That’s how staff step up.

What do you do in your spare time – if you get any!

I did an Ironman in September in Spain. I’ll certainly do more triathlons, but I wouldn’t be rushing back to do another Ironman. It’s just excruciating! Danny Quigley, who completed 10 Ironmans in 10 days for charity, was my coach, so you can’t get a better coach. Swimming is my favourite part of triathlon, so I swim a lot and do a lot of open water swimming. I call myself a failing triathlete and a marginally successful swimmer.

Find out more about AMP at https://ampincubator.com

Plans for next year’s Enterprise Week programme have been rubber-stamped by Council’s Business and Culture Committee.

The popular business support event, which is delivered by Council in conjunction with a wide range of partners, will take place from March 7 to 11.

The programme will feature a blended series of online and in-person events, with a focus on opportunities for post-pandemic innovation and economic growth.

Council’s Head of Business, Kevin O’Connor, told the committee that Enterprise Week would provide a valuable forum for local businesses to share expertise and experiences after two years of significant challenge and upheaval.

He added that the changing economic landscape meant that flexibility and willingness to adapt have become key to business success, and said EW2022 would help local companies reimagine business models to make them more resilient for the future.

This year’s EW2022 programme features a series of business focused workshops, webinars, keynote addresses, panel discussions, start-up pitches and networking opportunities. Themes will include Digital Innovation, Funding, Start Up support, Leadership and Empowerment, and Skills.

Full details of the event are set to be confirmed in the New Year.

Female entrepreneurs have just one week left to apply for a spot on a new accelerator-lite programme from AwakenHub which aims to provide support for women who are interested in starting their own business. 

SheGenerate is open to women from across the island of Ireland who have recently started a new business venture or who have an idea but are struggling to access the tools, information and support needed to get the business off the ground. 

35 spaces will be available (15 of which are being targeted at women in Northern Ireland) and the programme will be made up of a series of workshops, tailored to meet the needs of those enrolled, along with access to community events and advice and signposting from the programme founders and a hand picked group of Big Sisters who are company builders, innovators, investors and serial entrepreneurs. 

SheGenerate is the latest in a long line of innovations delivered by AwakenHub which have all been aimed at driving and securing economic investment and opportunities in the North West. It’s founders include Angel Investor, Mary McKenna; Business Growth Enabler, Clare McGee; Leadership Consultant Sinead Crowley; and Entrepreneur, Mary Carty. The foursome bring a wealth of knowledge and real life experience of growing and starting a business to SheGenerate and can offer successful applicants hugely sought after mentorship opportunities. 

Co-Founders Mary McKenna and Clare McGee  urged anyone interested in learning more about the event to come along to an Expression of Interest event on Tuesday September 28. 

“We know that many women have been inspired or impacted by Covid-19 to start or grow a new business venture but noticed that many struggled to find the right level of support to help them take ideas to the next level. 

“SheGenerate is open to women from across the island of Ireland working in any background or sector who are prepared to take the plunge, do the work and get trading within the next 12 months. 

“Thanks to our programme funders, Ulster Bank and Rethink Ireland, we can offer a place to 35 female entrepreneurs who will have access to mentorship, peer support and workshops to get their business up and running and create all of the positive economic and social change which comes along with this.”

John Ferris, Regional Ecosystem Manager with Ulster Bank, which has supported SheGenerate through its Enterprise Funding Grants, said it was important these programmes were available to existing and potential entrepreneurs. 

“At Ulster Bank we are committed to supporting female entrepreneurs and providing them with the tools and networks they need to start or scale a business. This partnership with SheGenerate has the potential to deliver transformative change for women; particularly those in the North West, and we are pleased to have been able to play a role in bringing female entrepreneurs even closer to potential investors through the Enterprise Partner Funding grant. 

“We look forward to seeing the outcomes of the project and wish each of the participants well as they make the most of this exciting opportunity and take the next step of their business journey.”

Applications will close at 5pm on Friday October 8 and those unable to attend the Expression of Interest event can register their details here . 

For more information about the programme and it’s founders, visit www.awakenhub.com  

A new online support platform is offering free videos, articles and advice to anyone considering setting up their own business in Northern Ireland.

Rebel on Demand offers impartial advice on starting up without debt, making sales, and increasing confidence and motivation.

The on-demand service allows users to tailor their learning journey, record progress, and formulate an idea they are passionate about.

Once that creative spark has been found and developed, and is considered a viable career path, it can be explored in more detail with the Council’s Go For It programme and local Enterprise Agency.

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Alderman Graham Warke, said: “Launching any new business idea can be extremely daunting, and this has been a particularly challenging year for local companies. This new online resource is another tool for local Councils who have been working hard to tailor support to meet the wide-ranging needs of businesses across the spectrum.

For more information on Rebel on Demand visit https://www.derrystrabane.com/Business/Rebel-On-Demand For more information on Go For It visit https://www.goforitni.com/about-go-for-it/derry-city-and-strabane-district-council/