Telstra and IAG have spent the past week separately launching new digital labs, the latest additions to a burgeoning scene of corporate-backed incubators.

The latest contribution by Telstra is its Gurrowa Innovation Lab in Melbourne, which it hopes will become a “skunkworks” project that rivals Lockheed Martin in the 1940s, or the homebrew computing club of the 1970s.

“These historic communities all were driven by an ethic of open collaboration and open innovation,” Telstra Operations CTO Vish Nandlall said.  

The purpose of Gurrowa is fairly straightforward: give staff a new space, “access to cutting edge technology and resources”, and let them loose on customer challenges.

Telstra's new Gurrowa lab (Credit: Telstra)

“The resources in Gurrowa will allow teams to build ideas in hardware and software, and deliver them through modern processes focused on speed and iteration,” Nandlall said.

Nandlall particularly wants to see Gurrowa working on larger, more complex customer challenges. He said he wants the lab to be a birthplace of “big ideas”.

“The starting point for this journey is the customer, what problems do they need solving?” he said.

“How can we improve farm productivity by pulling together drone technologies for aerial surveillance of farm land, data analytics for preventative maintenance of farm equipment, and genetic tracking of sheep to improve breeding outcomes?

“How can we improve the yield of municipal budgets by reducing energy consumption of street lamps and optimising garbage collection by tracking the weight of garbage bins?”

Comfortable, open spaces in Gurrowa to get the creative juices flowing. (Credit: Telstra)

Meanwhile, Insurance Australia Group (IAG) has created IAG Labs, which consists of “existing technology and project management teams” across the organisation.

“It also includes a new customer insights capability, a centralised digital product and service development team and a venturing unit focused on new business opportunities and disruptive technology,” the firm said.

IAG Labs is headed up by Peter Harmer, who was named as IAG’s chief digital officer in March.

IAG CEO Mike Wilkins said the company’s “rapidly changing operating environment means we must continue to explore new ways of doing business with our customers.”

“The shift to digital in particular is happening at an incredible pace, and we see a significant opportunity to evolve quickly in this area,” he said.

“Since taking on the role of chief digital officer in March, Peter has been looking at how we can take advantage of the shift to digital and be more inventive, which is why we’ve created IAG Labs.”

The moves by Telstra and IAG come as part of a broader innovation and digital push by Australia’s telcos and financial services firms.

This push is split between establishing internal labs to spark innovation by existing staff, and financing accelerators where start-ups can refine products, while their new corporate backers watch and learn about the emerging spaces that those start-ups play in.

Last week, NAB put $50 million into a new Ventures accelerator, matching an earlier initiative by rival Westpac.

CBA, ANZ and Optus also have skin in the game on corporate-backed innovation hubs.