Peter Mandelson, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has become the first student of the Northern Ireland Centre for E-Business (NICeB), the University of Ulster's online business centre.
Mr Mandelson logged on as part of the opening ceremony of the Pounds 4.5 million centre at UU's Coleraine campus. The NICeB - which has links to all four of the university's campuses, as well as associated further education colleges - offers a "one-stop shop" to help develop e-commerce in existing businesses or to encourage entrepreneurs to develop e-business.
"In Northern Ireland, we cannot afford to waste our time and our talent settling old scores and raking over the past," Mr Mandelson said. "So it is a pleasure to launch a venture with its sights set firmly on the future."
Dolores O'Reilly, joint director of the centre with Gerard Parr, said Northern Ireland's industrial landscape differed from mainland Britain's in that it is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises rather than large companies. "We very much see this initiative as UU showing strategic vision and leadership in the development of electronic business for SMEs," she said.
Professor Parr said the NICeB represented a commitment by the university to help make Northern Ireland an electronic information society. "In so doing, there are many challenges before us, not least that of overcoming some of the confusion that exists among those organisations and companies that have the most to benefit from, but are not yet persuaded to grasp, the 'digital opportunity'."
The NICeB issues regular e-briefings summarising key research findings and showing how these can make an impact on the way business works. It offers a range of teaching and training, including workshops for hands-on practice in using new technology and guest and celebrity lectures. As well as face-to-face courses, it offers online modules.
Professor O'Reilly said she expected the NICeB would attract some 500 people in its first year. The centre is funded partly by the university and partly by support from BT, First Trust Bank and local development agency LEDU.