Three years ago, TD took a bold step and launched the TD Lab at the Communitech Hub, a step that planted one of Canada’s largest financial institutions in the heart of a teeming startup ecosystem.

With a lean full-time staff and a quarterly rotating group of 10 to 15 co-op students from local universities, the lab develops ideas and builds prototypes using agile and design methodologies. TD also invests in programs that engage and impact students, women in technology, startups and small-to-mid-size companies across Canada.

Since three years in the fast-moving tech world tech seems more like 10 outside of it, we checked in with TD Lab Director Aaron Stuart for a look at what the lab has achieved and where it’s headed.

Q – Time flies when you’re innovating. Give us an idea of how the TD Lab has evolved since its launch three years ago.

A – Without question, it’s been a really exciting time. No two days are ever the same. When we opened our doors three years ago, the notion of a corporate innovation lab was still quite new. In fact, the world of technology was a very different place – things that are ubiquitous now were just starting to take shape. Think: using voice services like Alexa, or the introduction of smart watches. This tells you a couple of things – first, that we were making a bold investment by opening our own innovation lab; and second – in the world of tech – a lot can happen in three years.

As the Lab has matured, we’ve iterated and improved virtually every aspect of how we do things to ensure we’re constantly in step with what consumers are expecting and how technology is changing. That also includes our co-op program – an instrumental part of being able to work the way we do. In fact, we’ve just welcomed our 100th student this term. We’ve listened and learned over the years on how to provide a great intern experience. The feedback has been awesome.

For our business partners within the bank, they see us a service organization – one of the many places where innovation happens at TD, but with a unique approach that enables us to provide quick analysis and working prototypes that help them explore and understand the potential in opportunities.  

Q – Corporate innovation labs are typically associated with rapid prototyping – a team of coders working to quickly build new products that the parent company can commercialize – but there’s far more to it than that. Tell us about some of the achievements of the TD Lab beyond rapid prototyping.

A – Our approach is based on a mandate to focus on exploration and experimentation built on a mindset to build, measure and learn. This means starting our process by focusing on problems rather than solutions, and taking a structured approach through a lean methodology – to favour experimentation over elaborate planning and agile delivery over traditional, long-pipeline projects.

As a method and mindset, it’s been instrumental for us to be able to inform the rest of the bank on our learnings that in turn help them determine where the right opportunities are for investment or further exploration. One example of this are the key learnings from our first public test app Family Allowance that gave us insight into how in-the-moment customer engagement on feedback can positively influence a product roadmap, well over and above what intuition has typically done.

Q – How has that work in the lab affected the culture within the broader bank?

A – TD has developed an innovation ecosystem that takes a customer-centric approach in order to bring best-in-class digital experiences to market. We are constantly looking for new ways to connect with our customers to help them live their lives, achieve their goals, and enable their lifestyle. The Lab helps amplify this approach in the work that we do, which also translates into us playing an integral role in helping evolve the internal culture to embrace and foster innovation in order to build the bank of the future.

One way we do this is by hosting teams at Communitech. We’ve had more than 1,600 people from across all business lines visit the lab and tour the facilities, with more than 1,000 employees also taking part in our design thinking bootcamp that teaches our learn fast and learn often approach, and how it can be applied within the business.

Q – Many might assume TD launched a lab at Communitech to capitalize on trends in fintech, when in fact, you did it to connect with Waterloo Region’s startup community. How have your interactions with startups paid off for TD?

A – Part of us being here in Waterloo Region is to engage with the ecosystem, to sense and get an appreciation for what the startups are doing and learning. It gives us the opportunity to explore potential partnerships and investments, but also to establish and build relationships. Startups that are doing work in a variety of different areas can give us unique insights and perspectives on emerging trends, or help us think through a particular customer problem.

At the same time, we’ve served as a great intake point for startups to be introduced to different groups within the bank. So far in the past year, we’ve introduced 40 per cent of the startups that we’ve talked with to different parts of the bank to explore potential collaborations.

Q – About a year after the TD Lab launched at the Communitech Hub, TD opened a larger facility at 55 Columbia St. E. in Waterloo to focus on technological advancement. How have these two operations worked together for the benefit of TD?

A – TD55, as we like to call it, provides continuity for us and helps us to advance ideas and concepts we’re working on. In the lab we learn what’s plausible and what’s technically feasible. Then we accelerate the ideas that are most promising to TD55 where we work on a more formal digital design to bring to our bank business partners.

Q – At three years old, TD Lab is one of the elders among innovation labs at the Communitech Hub. What might the next three years look like for the lab and for TD’s innovation initiatives?

A – As the pace of change in technology has taught us – a lot can happen in three years!

I believe our method and mindset, and how we approach solving problems in a lean and nimble way, won’t change. But I think it’s going to evolve into being even more integrated with the broader business as we continue to refine our innovation journey.

There’s already a lot of connective tissue between the Lab and the TD towers in Toronto. And that’s only going to improve. Just recently, the Lab became part of the bank’s newly formed Innovation Centre of Excellence. One of its key pillars is thinking about how we might reduce the complexity of banking and customer experiences, and increase customer confidence.

I’m really excited about this as an area of focus for the Lab. It elevates our drive to understand our customers’ needs in order to provide the best experiences. The possibilities are endless.