Explore the ScaleUp Annual Review 2020

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Northern Ireland

Trusted business partners challenge entrepreneurs to go further and faster


1,900 businesses can access 1:1 account management

9,021 jobs created

81% of businesses reported increased confidence in leadership and management

150 companies received support to train staff, 91% reported an increase in skills levels

300 companies entered a new market

£1.3bn increase in sales

Participating sectors

Creative, digital, film, games & media Defence & security Environmental Science & Technology Finance Food & drink Manufacturing / Advanced Manufacturing


Invest Northern Ireland (Invest NI) has adopted a trusted business partner approach to understand the aspirations of scaling businesses and support those with the potential to create jobs, innovate, grow their exports and attract new inward investors.

Support is very selectively segmented to different companies’ stage in the growth cycle. Those companies with £10m turnover and ambitious to grow at pace are supported by the Scaling Team. In addition to the wide variety of support already available, the Scaling Manager works closely with CEOs via an international leadership programme to develop their strategic growth plan and deliver export led sales.  This approach is designed to challenge and support the business leaders to drive higher levels of innovation, increase competitiveness and grow faster, creating more higher-value jobs.

ONS data for 2018 shows that there are 835 scaleups in Northern Ireland: 320 are classified as scaleups due to rapid growth in their employees, 675 are classified as scaleups due to rapid growth in their turnover and 160 are scaleups that are increasing both employment and turnover simultaneously.

The ONS data reflects that across the four-year period from 2015 to 2018 the density of scaleups has increased by 1.29 per 100,000 of population per year, which is above the median of +0.68 per 100,000 of population.


To support the pipeline of scaling companies Invest NI has two early-stage scaling programmes: The Way to Scale and Ambition to Scale. The Way to Scale works with cohorts of 10 companies to enhance CEO confidence as well as leadership and strategic skills and create a lifetime cohort of peer support. Ambition to Scale focuses on companies with turnover between £3-10m helping senior management teams to create a scaling focus, build top team cohesion and develop the right company structures to support international growth. 

For those companies with turnover above £10m and targeting 20% growth, Invest NI has partnered with Enterprise Ireland and IESE Barcelona to deliver the International Leadership 4 Growth programme. With access to International best practice in Barcelona, New York and Munich, it supports CEOs to Identify their personal leadership potential and capability and create a strategic growth action plan with a robust deployment framework as well as to grow the Senior Leadership team and Board into a strong effective team to execute and implement step changes. The programme also provides access to an all-Ireland network of peers and mentors.

Invest NI has also launched a new Graduate to Export programme to help companies recruit graduates who will spend 18 months researching a target market and developing a market entry strategy. As part of the programme graduates also study towards a Post Graduate Diploma in International Marketing delivered by Ulster University and Institute of Export & International Trade .

During the Covid-19 pandemic Invest NI launched a programme of funding and support for businesses to reduce its impact under four themes: respond, recover, rebuild and resource.


More than 1,000 customer companies with external sales upload their performance metrics onto Invest NI’s portal annually. Just under 300 of these companies delivered more than 20% growth in sales from 2018 to 2019 while 330 delivered more than 20% growth over 3 years. 

Working closely with a portfolio of 22 ambitious scaling companies with turnover >£10m, over the last 3 years has delivered 32% growth in sales each year across the cohort, with 40% of sales being exported and employment increasing by 20% each year.


Feedback from high growth companies in the Scaling portfolio emphasised the importance of peer network and support plus access to external insights. In response, Invest NI has launched a series of successful peer networking sessions where CEOs have been able to share challenges and growth opportunities (currently online) and Scaling Insights Webinars on topics such as “Outpace the competition with emerging technology”.


A programme of scaling insights is being developed to encourage and support paper to digital, automation, use of AI, global network opportunities and business model innovation

I almost thought I knew enough about leadership and its challenges; however, this programme made me realise I was only scratching the surface. My company now has a stronger culture, better performing team, engaged management, increased productivity and more bottom line as a direct result of this programme.


According to ScaleUp Institute analysis of data received directly from ONS for years 2015-2018, the following picture emerges on the local environment.

Due to the ONS changing the boundaries of Local Authorities within Northern Ireland, it is not possible to examine the figures at a local authority level. The analysis below examines the scaleup density and growth trends for Northern Ireland as a whole.

Scaleups by Density: Moderate

Northern Ireland has a marginally below median density of scaleups measured by employment growth (17 scaleups per 100k population compared to the UK median of 18.1) and a marginally above median density of scaleups measured by turnover growth (35.9 scaleups per 100k population compared to the UK median of 35.4).

Scaleup Trends Over Time: Good

Northern Ireland is above the median in terms of improving the density of scaleups by employment in their community (+0.9 scaleups per year per 100k population on average compared to the UK median of +0.6) and above the median for scaleups by turnover (+1.0 scaleups per year per 100k population on average compared to the UK median of +0.4).

The ScaleUp Institute will continue to monitor this closely in the coming years to track whether local initiatives move the dial in the right direction for increasing the density of scaleups.

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