Steve Street, the tech entrepreneur and Ballymena native who helped bring Cygilant to Belfast
In May, Boston-based Cybersecurity firm Cygilant opened a Global Security Operation Centre (SOC) in Belfast. It was the company’s first foray into the European market and Belfast topped the list thanks in part to Ballymena native and Tantallon Founder & CEO, Steve Street, who championed Belfast to Cygilant’s senior management.
We caught up with Steve to find out about his tech success and why Belfast stood out for him as the right place for the Cygilant investment.
Tell us a bit about your background and why you left Northern Ireland.
I grew up in Ballymena and studied at Ballymena Academy.
I went to university at Loughborough which had great sporting links and a very good Engineering faculty. I did a Master’s of Engineering degree there which wasn’t available at Queen’s at the time.
My father, who built and sold his own textile company, did most of his business in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland so I’ve always had a bigger picture view and always aspired to do something more international. I thought if I left Northern Ireland I could always go back, but if I didn’t leave I would never leave.
Tell us a bit about your company and how you got involved in the Cygilant investment.
After university, I moved to London and worked for DuPont, Swiss Bank (now UBS) and then joined NatWest Markets eventually running their networking department buying in networking solutions. But my love for sailing brought me to Scotland and I took a job with Fujitsu selling services into Financial Services institutions. After a few years, I got frustrated with the lack of vision, innovation, and entrepreneurial attitude so I decided to set up my own company. My father was an entrepreneur and that’s always been an inspiration for me.
My first business started off really well and then 9-11 hit and wiped out 90% of our revenue in 3 months. But it was all a learning experience. My next company, called Ballintrae, did financial services infrastructure projects branching out into cyber and market data. I brought someone in to run the business so I could focus on looking for new and innovative technologies in Cyber Security.
That led me to set up a second business called Tantallon to focus on the Cyber Security market. I was looking at innovative but proven technology that solves a wide, industry problem in an innovative way. Based on our research, we would typically select Israeli and US based technologies and help them expand into Europe, predominantly through London. It was through this work that I met Rob Scott, who is now the CEO of Cygilant. Rob was looking to grow the company and was interested in finding a good location to support potential business in Europe. I knew of the great work CSIT was doing in the cyber space with GCHQ and the recent investments by companies like Puppet, BlackDuck and Alert Logic, so I suggested he look at Belfast. Having met Invest NI at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, I reached out to them to organise a visit for the Cygilant CEO and CTO. We visited in February 2019 and the programme was excellent. We met with the universities; viewed potential properties; met other investors; discussed employment, training and R&D grants and most importantly heard from a number of very impressive Site Leads from existing companies. The Invest NI team were incredibly professional and we were so well looked after and as a result Cygilant engaged me to explore the opportunity in Belfast and put together a project plan. I’m now on the Strategic Advisory Board at Cygilant and they’ve opened their Global Security Operations Centre in Belfast.
What are your thoughts on the technology sector here and how Northern Ireland has changed since you left?
I’ve been blown away by how much Belfast has changed- it’s truly a modern city of the millennium. I’m amazed by the redevelopment and the changing cityscape. One thing that really struck me about the technology sector in Northern Ireland was how Queen’s University and Ulster University actively change their course material and structure based on industry feedback. To my knowledge that close link between further education and industry is really unique to Northern Ireland. The academy approach where companies can create tailored training programmes to develop a pipeline of talent is very visionary in terms of preparing the workforce to be constructive and productive for industry.
Would you encourage other diaspora to help to promote Northern Ireland as a great place to invest or good place do business?
Very much so. In terms of Cygilant, they’ve already hired 30 people and have a brand new office in Belfast. That’s less than 15 months from when we visited Belfast for our first meeting with Invest NI so it’s tremendous progress in a very short time and we’re on our way to smash our goal of 65 employees in 3 years. That seems to be a common thread with investors in Northern Ireland. They come here for the competitive costs and pool of talent. But when you get here and start to grow your business you realise just how good the talent is, how good the lifestyle and quality of life is and the business grows and grows.
I was also really impressed with Invest NI. The support is just fantastic and you feel like the people genuinely want to help you and are totally engaged with what you want to achieve as a business.
How do you stay connected with home? Is there anything you miss about Northern Ireland?
The Guinness! While Northern Ireland is no longer my home, I love visiting and seeing my family and friends.