Muru-D is about culture rather than unicorns: Thodey

Former Telstra CEO David Thodey has said the telco created its startup accelerator to improve company culture, rather than finding the next world-beating startup.

If you think large corporations get involved in the startup space in an effort to latch onto the next Facebook, Tesla, or Alibaba, then think again, at least in the case of Australia's incumbent telco.

According to Telstra's former CEO David Thodey, the communications giant set up its Muru-D accelerator to drive change within the parent company.

"People think we were trying to find the next great new thing, it wasn't, it was all about the cultural change," Thodey said in a wide-ranging speech at the Hitachi Social Innovation Forum in Sydney last week.

"We got young, entrepreneurial startups coming in with great ideas -- we'd put our engineers with them, and next thing we knew we had great ideas everywhere -- so it was more cultural."

Due to the roll out of the National Broadband Network across Australia, it has been estimated that Telstra has an earnings gap of between AU$2 billion to AU$3 billion annually.

"We believe that Telstra will be able to fill this EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation) gap to a certain extent, but will be challenged to do so fully," ratings agency Moody's said in a July research note.

Earlier this year, Telstra wrote down AU$246 million of over US$300 million investment in video-streaming and analytics company Ooyala.

Elsewhere in his speech, Thodey said he tried for many years to reduce the number of layers of management within Telstra, but had no luck succeeding.

"I would say the curse of corporations is bureaucracy and hierarchy ... in Telstra we had 13 layers of management, every year I'd say 'I want to get to seven layers', but they breed, layers of management, they keep coming back," he said.

"All it does is it just creates this slowness, because every time you put another layer of management there, someone else feels they've got to add value to the process by saying yes or no or whatever."

Thodey, who was made chair of Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in August last year, hit out at the lack of collaboration and commercialisation in the Australian technology sector.

"We have this attitude, the tall-poppy syndrome, to bring them down. Why? What is it about us?" Thodey said.

"We are 24 million, we are smaller than California, and we end up competing between Victoria and NSW, Queensland, WA, SA, and we don't drive to a common vision about what we can be in the world."

On Sunday, the CSIRO and Australian government launched a AU$200 million fund to commercialise early-stage innovations from CSIRO, universities, and other publicly-funded research bodies.

The government will inject AU$70 million into the joint public-private sector fund over the next 10 years, alongside AU$30 million of royalties from the CSIRO's Wi-Fi patent portfolio, and an additional AU$100 million from the private sector.