​Telstra's Muru-D capitalising on Australia's entrepreneurial talent

With its third round of startups about to complete their 6-month residency, Telstra's startup incubator Muru-D has its eyes set on the next wave of budding local entrepreneurs.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Annie Parker, co-founder of Telstra's startup accelerator hub Muru-D, believes that there is an abundance of ideas in Australia, and no shortage of talented individuals who want to turn their ideas into a potential business.

"With a population of say 23-24 million people, Australia punches well above its weight in terms of the talent pool," Parker said.

"What we [Australia] do lack and what we could do more of, is more opportunity for help.

"If the talent pool is growing, we need to grow that mentorship at the same rate in order for us to capitalise on the opportunity that we have."

In October 2013, Telstra launched Muru-D to provide workspace, funding, and advice for promising startups in return for equity. Since launch, Muru-D has seen 44 startups through their paces, with 42 businesses still kicking on; all of which Telstra owns a stake in.

According to Parker, the genesis of the accelerator came after Telstra decided it wanted to be a global technology company, with the telco giant unsure who, what, and where to invest in.

"If we want to become a global technology company, how do we do that, what do we need to invest in, what are the trends happening in the global ecosystem," she said. "This led to the creation of the Telstra Software Group, of which the president is also the co-founder of Muru-D alongside me, Charlotte Yarkoni."

Parker said conversations were initially centred around which software companies Telstra should acquire or at least heavily invest in that would progress into future assets that the Telstra company could then develop as business lines.

She said the shortlist of businesses Yarkoni presented to former Telstra CEO David Thodey was lacking one important element: none of them were Australian.

"Charlotte said, 'I actually hear more Australian accents in the Valley than I hear when I'm here with Australia'," Parker said. "The follow up question was then, okay, how do we fix that, and Muru-D was one part of that answer."

Parker said Muru-D exists to help the local talent develop in the area where Telstra operates, with its modus operandi to help develop the Australian startup ecosystem and give it a better chance of becoming a global company in the future.

"Telstra isn't in this to make money, although that would be nice," she said.

"Whilst it absolutely is about building better entrepreneurs, we still want to measure our performance to make sure we are genuinely adding value back into Telstra as well."

For the past three years, Muru-D has operated in the following way: The 10 startups in residency each receive AU$20,000 when they move in, and after meeting milestones such as convincing three other people or entities to invest AU$5,000 into their business, they then get a second AU$20,000 from Telstra and earn the right to carry on.

"This is not a charity, this is a business and that is exactly how other investors will want them to behave when they're in the big wide world by themselves," Parker said.

"Equally, if they don't hit those milestones, then they don't earn the right to go through the second half of the program."

When selecting the startups to join the accelerator, Parker said the judges tend to place more weight on the entrepreneurs.

"Clearly we don't have a crystal ball and don't know whether these businesses will definitely be global businesses in eight years' time, but the one thing that we can select through is the talent of the founders," she said.

In the wild, she said it usually takes a startup 8.3 years to go from zero to an exit.

"If you think it's going to be eight years from coming to fruition, who knows what Telstra customers, whether enterprise or consumer, might need in eight years' time," Parker said.

Recently, Muru-D moved closer to Telstra's Sydney Software Group, outgrowing its previous space at the old telephone exchange building in Paddington.

Parker said the new space gives the startups room to grow, with many adding new staff members during their short time at Muru-D. She also said it is good for the startups moving through the program to be at arm's reach of the software teams.

Muru-D's latest cohort of startups are a little over a month away from graduating, and the organisation's Singapore accelerator is currently accepting applications for round two.

In addition to the Sydney and Singapore locations, Muru-D also has a partnership with Brisbane's River City Labs, which was created and fully funded by Australian entrepreneur Steve Baxter.

"If I go back to the original objective of Muru-D which is to develop and grow the ecosystem in Australia, we took a long hard look at ourselves and realised we did a great job of doing that essentially here in Sydney and arguably a little further into New South Wales, but realistically our impact hadn't gotten much further," Parker said.

"We've had a few startups from Melbourne and Brisbane and Perth who came to Sydney for Muru-D, but we hadn't really helped to contribute to the growth of ecosystems outside of here. So we looked to other parts of the Australian ecosystem to bring the IP of our process to your local community, but you need to bring the staff to run the accelerator, you need to house the startups, and we'll bring 50 percent of the investment dollars into those startups."

About 12 months ago, Muru-D kicked off its global partnership network with consumer-focused Chinaccelerator in Shanghai, Internet of Things hub Hax Accelerator in Shenzhen, 500 Startups in California, Tel Aviv's The Junction, and with New Zealand's 12-year-strong angel funding network, Icehouse.

"Our intention is not to just keep adding partners for the sake of it, but we will look at a couple more, maybe Europe as that's the only geography we haven't really got a partner in just yet," Parker said.

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