Explore the ScaleUp Annual Review 2022

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Northern Ireland

Building a 10x Economy by focusing on scaleups

Over 60 companies supported to train staff in the last year, 91% reported an increase in skills levels

81% reported increased confidence in leadership and management

250 companies entered a new market in the last year

21% growth in sales from Scaling team portfolio

1:42 return on investment on Leadership 4 Growth programme

34% of all NI supported companies sales are via exports


Northern Ireland has seen strong performance despite economic and delivery challenges. Business support is delivered through Invest NI and in 2021/22 it has worked with 1,800 businesses providing expertise and funding worth £99m, initiating investment projects that will deliver £573m of investment in the local economy and 3,548 new jobs.  Support is tailored to business size and profile with an account management model in place. Support for the wider business community that do not trade outside Northern Ireland is channelled through local councils.

Advanced engineering and manufacturing remains the single largest sector in Northern Ireland with key clusters in agrifood, construction, financial, professional and business services, health and life sciences, and digital and creative technologies.  Supporting the green economy is also one of the main priorities. Scaleup support reflects this and underpins Northern Ireland’s 10x Economy strategy for growth, focusing on key areas spanning advanced engineering, AI and cybersecurity along with life sciences and the green economy. 

Support to access established and emerging international markets is available through Invest NI’s 26 overseas offices enabling market entry through research, tailored overseas expansion guidance, financial incentives, soft landing support, introductions to overseas suppliers, meet the buyer events, trade shows and exhibitions.

Addressing skills gaps across the ecosystem and creating a robust talent pipeline is priority for Invest NI and new initiatives are currently in development to tackle skills shortages. New assured skills and conversion courses will further benefit scaleups in the business and professional services sector. Other planned actions will support automation in the agrifood sector.

ONS data for 2020 shows that there are 880 scaleups in Northern Ireland: 285 are classified as scaleups due to rapid growth in their employees, 740 are classified as scaleups due to rapid growth in their turnover and 145 are scaleups that are increasing both employment and turnover simultaneously.

The ONS data reflects that across the four-year period from 2017 to 2020 the density of scaleups has decreased by -1.27 per 100,000 of population per year.


Northern Ireland’s scaleup support is targeted to business size and the stage of their scaleup journey with a primary focus on one to one support. Invest NI’s scaling team works closely with a portfolio of 25 scaleups with turnover of more than £10m and cumulative sales of just over £990m. These scaleups employ 5,363 people.

Larger scaling companies with turnover above £10m and 20% plus growth, are supported through:

  • The International Leadership 4 Growth programme (L4G) which provides the CEOs of export focused companies support in developing a Dynamic Business Strategy, High Performance Leadership and Sustainable Growth. The programme is delivered in collaboration with Enterprise Ireland, IESE Barcelona and Invest NI.
  • Scaling companies are further supported on a one to one basis by Client Managers to access export market research assistance, R&D support, MIS support, operational efficiency, skills and leadership development

Scaleups and pipeline businesses with the ambition to scale can access support through:

  • Graduate to Export programme which gives financial support – up to the value of £18,000 – to help businesses recruit graduates who will spend 18 months embedded with the business. Graduates spend six months in Northern Ireland familiarising themselves with the business before moving to an export market for up to 12 months to complete a market research project aligned to the company’s strategic plan. The programme, now in its third cohort, is fully funded by Invest NI and delivered by Ulster University and the Institute of Export. 
  • Ambition to Scale & Leader Programme works with the senior management of companies in the £3-5m turnover stage to create strategic vision and growth plans. To date, the programme has supported 111 senior managers, from 75 early-stage scaling businesses.
  • Way to Scale is a 3-month programme that spans across Northern Ireland and the USA. Supported by Invest NI and delivered by Catalyst the programme targets technology and innovation companies with £500k revenue to build CEO confidence and leadership.

Further support for scaleups in Northern Ireland is available in the form of grants and partially funded training. Management Information System grants offer financial support to help businesses increase innovation and productivity. Qualifying scaleups must have a turnover of more than £250,000 and show clear growth potential in turnover, employment or GVA. The Assured Skills programme provides support to help growth companies address sectoral skills gaps through the delivery of pre-employment training that equips graduates from more general backgrounds with specific technical skill sets e.g. Data analytics, cyber security.

There are also a range of other public and private programmes across Northern Ireland – find out more on the scaleup support finder here. 


The 1,800 businesses supported by Invest NI during 2021/22 employ 131,899 people and had external sales worth £17.8bn. 1,017 businesses were actively involved in R&D during 2021 and have raised £109.5m in fundraisings. The majority of the 1,800 businesses supported are scaleups or in the scaling pipeline with all of them exporting outside of Northern Ireland. 

Invest NI has further supported 108 scaling companies through their Access to Finance Funds providing £66m of loan funding.

Invest NI’s portfolio of 25 scaleups receiving intensive support has noted a 21 percent increase in sales since last year.  83 percent of these sales are outside of Northern Ireland and 40 percent of overall sales are exported outside the UK.

Leadership 4 Growth has now supported 430 scaling businesses across the island of Ireland. These have noted an average annual increase of 25 percent in revenues and 24 percent in sales.

Since 2019, 19 scaling businesses have completed the Way to Scale programme with 26% being female-led. These have showed an average growth of 30% in employee numbers. Additionally, half of the participants exceeded £2m in revenues within 24 months of completing the programme and 20 percent £500k in export sales within 18 months.

Two cohorts of the Graduate to Export programme are now complete, supporting 22 ambitious and scaling businesses across a number of sectors. These were matched with graduates targeting markets across EMEA, Europe and USA and graduates have been awarded a PG Diploma in International Marketing.  In the current third cohort, 10 graduates and scaling business are participating in the programme.


A new funding competition, the Ambition to Grow competition, was launched in October offering ambitious scaling businesses up to £45,000 in funding. This will focus on bringing in new, younger scaling businesses that are ambitious to grow and need support to sell their innovative products or services outside Northern Ireland. 

A further focus for future support will be maximising opportunities for partnerships between the life sciences sector and the NHS along with expanded help for AI and green tech scaleups and wider support for the green economy. Additionally, enhanced support to help scaleups overcome macroeconomic barriers and attract and retain talent will be key future priorities.

As part of the UK Governments Levelling Up Agenda, over the next 10 years Northern Ireland is set to benefit from investment in 4 City & Growth deals which will cover every council area in the country. With funding provided by central government, the NI Executive, local councils, universities and private providers the primary driver is to deliver the 10X Economy strategy through collaboration on breakthrough technologies. Invest NI’s role is to support and encourage collaboration amongst project owners to maximise potential benefits and industry linkages.


According to ScaleUp Institute analysis of data received directly from ONS for years 2017-2020, the following picture emerges on the local environment.

Local Authorities located within Northern Ireland have a moderate density of scaleups, and the trend between 2017 and 2020 reveals that none of the local authorities showed an increase in the density of scaleup businesses, and all showed an above median increase in scaleup density.

Scaleups by Density: Mixed

The vertical axis of this matrix shows where local authorities located in this LEP stand compared to the rest of the UK: all of the 1 local authorities [FN1] have a below median density of scaleups measured by employment growth and all of the 1 local authorities [FN2] have an above median density of scaleups measured by turnover growth.

Scaleup Trends Over Time: Excellent

The horizontal axis of this matrix shows whether the density of scaleups has increased or decreased over time relative to the rest of the UK: all of the 1 local authorities [FN3] are above the median in terms of improving the density of scaleups by employment in their community and all of the 1 local authorities [FN4] are above the median for scaleups by turnover.

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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