How Brisbane can use corporate and startup collaboration to accelerate innovation

22 February 2018

As an American newcomer to Queensland, who just arrived in Brisbane in September as part of the Hot DesQ cohort, I was immediately fascinated by two important yet seemingly unrelated points about my new home-away-from-home.

Firstly, Queensland had recently elevated itself from 4 percent to 12 percent of the Australian financial technology (FinTech) startup ecosystem, according to EY’s new FinTech Report. This is extremely important because FinTech is the largest and fastest-growing sector for startups in Australia with one in four founders focusing on it.

Secondly, I heard this quote from a local thought leader in Brisbane’s startup ecosystem: “I think I’m done trying to engage corporations in the startup ecosystem because they are continually changing their goals and expectations.”

As a FinTech company CEO, I was delighted with the first piece of news since my research on Brisbane had indicated the city – based on its population, startup ecosystem maturity, and the considerable amount of financial industry corporations – should be growing at a faster rate in the FinTech industry.

And I also felt sympathy with the second point, about being “done with corporations”. This frustration is quite understandable based on my own experience working in the corporate financial services sector for nine years. With an average of 9.4 months to buy anything, nothing happens quickly in the corporate world and that can frustrate startups.

However, recently I’ve seen important change across the globe that shows how corporations have the ability to not only accelerate startup growth but also help negate lower levels of venture capital and other ecosystem disadvantages.

My own home, the US Midwest, struggles with low population density and capital and many cities there are exploring new ways to leverage their strong local corporations to negate those innovation barriers.

These forward-looking communities understand that corporate involvement in the startup and accelerator ecosystems can be a differentiator…BUT not if you simply do what has already been done. Imitation doesn’t move a market ahead exponentially, only incrementally.

It’s either consider new and emerging options to escalate innovation or continue with what’s been done already and get the same results as everyone else.

Doing something entirely new in the innovation arena is something for Brisbane to think hard about as it continues to rapidly grow. And also a way for it to win big!

Corporate and startup collaboration models

Looking back into the corporate innovation space, we’ve seen several models emerge over 5+ years:

  1. Corporate Led Programs focused on internal pilots with startups like ING FinTech Village, Pivotus Ventures is another example, originally by Umpqua Bank but included in its list of active financial service investors/partners is Brisbane’s own CUA.
  2. Startup Accelerator Managed Programs with a single corporate sponsor: Think Barclays Techstars in London.
  3. Location or Mission-Driven Program models where corporations within a specific geography or with similar corporate missions support a startup accelerator program. Most traditional startup accelerators have this location model as it relates to engaging local corporations for sponsorship. Points of Light’s CivicX accelerator is one example based on mission (financial inclusion and mobility) and corporate social responsibility.

The central limitation of the above programs is  that you’re often unable to educate and engage corporations at scale because most of these programs have stopped short by only asking for sponsorship and mentorship or they are led by a single entity and thus learnings aren’t shared or scaled across a market area or industry.

But, there’s a new area emerging that Brisbane can take advantage of. A fourth option:

  1. True Corporate + Startup Programs where the program is designed to educate both sides of the relationship, where both sides are vetted to make right problem/solution and timing fit, and where paid pilots/engagements are started early and can grow to be enterprise-wide engagements.

These are new but quickly growing evolutions. I’ll give you two examples.

The first is the Global Insurance Accelerator in Des Moines, Iowa. This program isn’t about just a group of startups, or corporate partners, or even Des Moines, it’s about accelerating innovation in the trillion-dollar insurance industry. It  used the density of insurance companies located in Des Moines as a way to rally together and push innovation industry-wide. The program started with a handful of interested insurance corporations involved as sponsors, investors, and mentors and has quickly grown to include insurance corporations from other states.

One program taking this model further that could be duplicated here in Brisbane – and the one I know best thanks to meeting its Startup Relations and Program Directors – is The Bridge Community in Atlanta, Georgia. Owned and lead by Coca-Cola, this program has expanded to include Cox Communications, Porsche, SunTrust, and others. In the past three years, the startup teams that have gone through the Atlanta program have completed 20 pilots and proof of concept. Those numbers jump to 60 startups with 90 pilots and 27 licensing agreements when you add in their Tel Aviv program.

I don’t have many more examples of this type of program because it’s so new but I believe they will become prevalent. I say this based on recent conversations with startup communities around the world. And the fact that I’ve had conversations with accelerator entities from Ireland to Iowa and they are independently discussing this same evolution means that it’s soon to trend.

One of the main drivers of these conversations is that each city is looking for ways to stand out to startups who have potential to relocate and grow jobs in their city. Brisbane has so many great reasons for FinTechs to relocate here…except for an organised corporate innovation program that can help them scale.

Why is this important?

It’s important because you can use this type of program to engage scaling startups that have a proven product but may not have the capital to scale it on their own. The corporations can provide customers, capital, and enterprise-level resources to get to scale. It’s a true partnership that benefits both sides of the equation!

Any corporation that opts into a program at this next level of engagement does so with the understanding it is committing to a culture and process change when it comes to innovation with other partners. It’s not a small ask for a corporation that has been designed to execute on its existing business model and may not have the internal ability or mindset to search for new business models…but that very thing is table stakes (i.e. mandatory to play the game) in the changing economy. Internal incremental improvements are not enough when most every industry is staring down the barrel of massive profit disruption.

So corporations who understand this and can band together in a unified program can also get a path to more quickly test new innovations and to educate their existing staff on the future of the financial industry. I’d hate to see a local financial services provider layoff 6000 staff like NAB did in November only to announce in the same article that it would be hiring 2000 employees in the future who  are more “digitally focused”.

Here’s a list of Brisbane-area financial services corporations I’d suggest consider joining forces to form a FinTech Corporate + Startup Program to accelerate innovation in their industry and for Brisbane:

  • BOQ
  • RACQ
  • CUA
  • Suncorp
  • Queenslanders Credit Union
  • Sunsuper
  • QSuper
  • Canstar

Why financial services for a focus in Brisbane?

Because of density, opportunity, differentiation, and because “82 per cent of banks and insurers intend to increase the number of partnerships they have with FinTech firms over the next three to five years”.

I also suggest this industry-focused program because it can help resolve the frustrations in dealing with corporations as they relate to misunderstood or misaligned priorities. The goal of getting these corporations on the same page would be to help them win the battle for innovation in financial services and insurance over the big four banks. That can also simultaneously help Brisbane win the battle for FinTech talent and job creation.

When I asked more questions about the frustrations vocalised earlier by the startup advocate, I learned that one corporation was asking for an immediate return-on-investment on a 48-hour hackathon.

A unifying program helps avoid those questions and instead asks the better question: Is innovation a Type I or Type II investment for your organisation?

On the Road to Corporate-Startup Collaboration, New Horizons 2015, KPMG.

And it asks the same question about Brisbane and Queensland.

“Are we in the innovation game for the short or long term?” Government funding from both state and city council and the collaborative approach to one unified ecosystem suggests long-term.

So, this article is just the start of what should be a larger conversation in the Brisbane financial services industry.

I’m working with the leaders of FinTech Queensland to organise an all-day event for the financial service industry and FinTech startup founders to explore these ideas further, look in-depth at other programs around the globe, and to start a larger conversation about how Brisbane can come together to accelerate innovation in FinTech exponentially.

The event is tentatively scheduled for late March.

If you’d like more information about attending that event, sponsoring, or to otherwise join this conversation, please email or

In four short months, Brisbane’s startup scene has grown on me quickly because of the warm reception and help we’ve received and I want to help move it forward…but it will take a lot of stakeholders coming together to have a larger conversation. Please join us!

Mark Zmarzly

CEO and Founder of Hip Pocket

Mark Zmarzly, CEO and Founder of Hip Pocket, came to Queensland from Lincoln, Nebraska, USA with the Hot DesQ program. Hip Pocket was originally founded at a Startup Weekend event in 2012 and began deploying FinTech software in 2014, including its newly launched savings app Hip Money. All of its software is designed to help people make better financial decisions from their phones in under two minutes. Mark has skills and experience in banking, FinTech, sales, pitching, raising capital, and, thanks to his Masters in Creative Writing, storytelling.

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