NRMA embraces startups, eyes emergency digital assistance

'Tomorrow’s car is a smartphone on wheels,' says NRMA CEO Tony Stuart

The men behind the NRMA Jumpstart accelerator. From left to right: NRMA GM corporate strategy, Michael Pastega; Slingshot co-founders Craig Lambert and Trent Bagnall; and NRMA Group CEO Tony Stuart. Credit: NRMA

The men behind the NRMA Jumpstart accelerator. From left to right: NRMA GM corporate strategy, Michael Pastega; Slingshot co-founders Craig Lambert and Trent Bagnall; and NRMA Group CEO Tony Stuart. Credit: NRMA

The 94-year-old NRMA seeks to reinvent its business for the 21st century through startups and a digital twist on its roadside assistance program.

At the Sydney launch of Jumpstart, a 12-week startup program offering $30,000 and a workspace to each successful applicant, NRMA CEO Tony Stuart revealed that the future of roadside assistance could be computers.

“I think we can be the neutral player on emergency digital assistance, just like we have with roadside,” he said.

“People’s smartphones break down as much as their cars. Quite frankly, tomorrow’s car is a smartphone on wheels.”

Stuart said he’s spoken about the idea with telcos and major software providers.

“We are seriously looking at emergency computing assistance,” Stuart told Computerworld Australia. “Over time we should recruit digital technicians who are this century’s version of roadside patrols.”

Stuart said he believes that NRMA is well placed to enter that space as a trusted neutral brand.

“When a computer breaks down at ten ‘o clock at night, and a child’s doing HSC [and] mum and dad are out, who do you ring?” asked Stuart. “Not Ghostbusters. Ring NRMA.”

Separately, Stuart said he’s excited about the Jumpstart program because startups bring fresh outsider perspective and act as representatives for NRMA customers.

“We’re frustrated entrepreneurs,” he said of the people at NRMA. “We think we’re entrepreneurs but we’re stuck inside reasons why companies can’t do this and can’t do that – business process, budgets [and] plans.”

Jumpstart is not NRMA’s first stab at trying to spur innovation within the organisation. During the global financial crisis, NRMA built an innovation laboratory including a $5 million seed fund.

“We got lots of staff ideas and we got ideas from members,” he said. “But sometimes between ideas and money you need some good process.”

“I had my chief investment officer and my CFO saying, ‘Hey listen, we’re prepared to invest in something but we want to know what the criteria is and someone else in the industry [who] has vetted it.’ So we were sort of missing the bridge.”

“What I think accelerator programs create is a bridge between a company’s own source for ideas and money.”

Stuart said he looked at similar startup programs run by large Australian organisations like Telstra, Optus and ANZ Bank. Later this year, the NRMA CEO plans to visit the SingTel innovation centre in Singapore, he said.

NRMA does not have the same scale as some of those other companies, he cautioned.

“They’re very large companies with very large resources … We’re not in that space. [Telstra] and the banks are in their own world. We’re probably more grassroots. We’re looking at something which can be under $1 million and grow into the millions.”

Stuart added that he’s happy to recommend startups that don’t make the NRMA program to other large companies.

“I would have no hesitation ringing Optus or ringing an airline and saying, ‘Guys, this didn’t pass with us, but you should have a second look at that.”

On Australia’s startup scene, Stuart said he thinks “we still have a lot further to go.”

“The previous federal government and the current one could not mark themselves a ten out of ten for innovation,” he said. “We tend to be a knowledge nation, but we have to be an innovation nation.”

“Every state government and every federal government should be looking at how they sponsor innovation laboratories and enterprise.”

The Jumpstart program goes from 1 December to 12 March. Applications open on 29 September and are due by 14 November.

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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Tags mobilesmartphonescarsstartupsNRMAstartup acceleratoremergency digital assistanceroadside assistanceemergency computing assistanceJumpstart

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