“We just focus on the problem of the homeowner. How do we make it easy to get one? How do we make it easy to pay it off? How do we make it easy to manage?” Walsh says.
Athena was founded in 2017 and launched in 2019.
One of its main selling points is a product, launched in September last year, called AcceleRATES, which enables Australians to pay off their home loans faster, by offering rates with no fees that, critically, are automatically lowered as the customer pays off a chunk of their loan.
A borrower who starts off with an 80 per cent loan to value ratio (LVR) will see their rate reduced as their LVR falls to 70 per cent and then again when it falls to 60 per cent.
If the firm reduces its mortgage rates, say, in response to an interest rate cut from the Reserve Bank of Australia, all existing Athena customers will enjoy the cut, rather than just new customers.
“Just because you’re loyal, doesn’t mean you should be paying a penalty,” Walsh says. Walsh and Starkey say they are using more cost-effective “whole loan” arrangements, rather than the more usual securitisation model, to fund the mortgage book.
Michael Starkey co-founded iSelect in 1999. Eamon Gallagher
Today Athena has a “core” staff of 170, has distributed just over $3.3 billion of home loans, and in May broke the record for the largest capital raise completed entirely from local backers, taking in $90 million.
Seek co-founder Paul Bassat sits on the Athena board and his Square Peg Capital participated in the capital raise, alongside AirTree Ventures, Macquarie Bank, AustralianSuper, Hostplus, Sunsuper, Salesforce Ventures and Apex Capital.
Athena picks up the flagship award – which in 2020 was won by engineering and project management company Aurecon for a ground-breaking solar-powered water purifying system – amid tough competition.
Five special awards are given out in addition to the 10 category winners. Ellume Health receives the Best Product Innovation award for its COVID-19 home test, an over-the-counter rapid self-test that provides results in 15 minutes.
Professional services firm Deloitte takes out the award for Best Service Innovation for Illuminate, which uses machine learning to help companies to improve detection of risks in their supply networks.
RSL Queensland receives the award for Best Marketing Innovation for its Light up the Dawn idea, where, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, community members were encouraged to gather in their driveways at 6am on Anzac Day and listen to the dawn service.
City of Canterbury Bankstown receives the Best Internal Innovation award for its Closing the Loop on Waste program, which uses cameras and machine learning to identify what each resident is putting in their waste bins.
TRA co-founder Andrew Lewis has always looked for creative outlets.
New Zealand-based TRA takes out the award for Best Innovation Program for its Tracksuit data-driven insight platform, which enables start-ups and small and medium-sized businesses to track the strength of their brand equity.
Like so many start-ups, Athena was conceived in a coffee shop – the coffee shop on the ground floor of NAB’s former Sydney headquarters at 255 George Street to be exact. It was February 2017. By April Walsh and Starkey had both resigned from the bank, having had “very interesting” conversations with their respective spouses, and two months later they started to put finance in place, with $3 million of seed funding.
Innovation and start-ups were not new to the duo. Walsh, who is 50, founded NAB Trade, the bank’s online share trading platform. Starkey, 47, was running transactions services, deposits and payments, but in 1999 he co-founded comparison website iSelect.
“Michael and I both came in with an advantage that we had built things before. Delivering financial experiences through digital channels has been something that I’ve been focused on for several years,” Walsh notes.
“We had a lot of connections and experience, which is helpful,” Starkey adds.
So what are the other secrets to being innovative?
Apart from a keen focus on the problem that needs to be solved, Walsh points to the need for agility and speed. That, he says, is hard to achieve inside a large corporation.
“Inside a corporate environment, I always had this view that we had a Nike sneaker on one foot and a gumboot on the other,” Walsh quips.
“Being part of a corporate has its advantages, but it has some challenges as well. I had that thought: wouldn’t it be nice to have a Nike sneaker on both feet and really be able to move at start-up speed.”
The next requirement is a preparedness to be relentless.
“Often the popular perception of innovation is there is that eureka moments, or the cartoonish light bulb above someone’s head, as opposed to the idea that this is an ongoing process of a team sport, where there’s lots of ongoing learning.
“Thinking about the core leadership team of TRA in this context, we are all total dreamers.”
— Andrew Lewis
“There are some big exciting moments, but actually, a lot of the time it’s the 1000 little things that add up to the magic. You need to have a model where you can actually bring teams together to continually test and learn,” Walsh says.
Starkey adds: “The [adage that it takes] 99 per cent perseverance and 1 per cent inspiration is certainly true.
“We wore out a lot of shoe leather in the first year-and-a-half of the business trying to secure funding arrangements. We would have gone to 200 meetings for one or two successes here and there. That’s a necessary part of the process.”
Walsh adds innovators need to be confident they can learn fast enough.
“The interesting question is: how do you get confident you’re going to learn fast enough about what success requires, rather than assuming that at the start of the journey you have all the answers, because you simply don’t,” he says.
Andrew Lewis, co-founder of TRA, says innovative companies need a “bias towards action”.
He tells BOSS: “[Employees] know they have the green light to go and execute on big ideas, to grab something, run with it and learn from the experience. Our motto is: if you are not a little bit scared inside, you probably aren’t innovating.”
Lewis says he has always been someone who loves ideas and the creative process, which has led him to constantly look for creative outlets – from writing power ballads in a band as a teenager to writing and directing short films at university.
“Thinking about the core leadership team of TRA in this context, we are all total dreamers, really,” Lewis adds.
That does not appear to be the case with the Athena founders. Neither describe themselves as someone who has always dreamt up business ideas. Walsh sits on the board of FinTech Australia, which gives him insight into a broad spectrum of start-ups and innovators. He points to distinct two groups of innovators.
“There is a group that is thinking of a different idea every moment. They’re typically coming out and starting up at quite a young age. They start something when they are young and have got nothing to lose.
“There are personalities that are spark, spark, spark, idea, idea, idea, let’s go and make that happen.
“And there are others for whom it’s a bit more of a journey to find the concept where they’ve got the passion to say: ‘I’m going to dedicate myself to making this happen.’”
Despite not going down the innovative entrepreneurial path in their 20s, the Athena duo recognise that a little bit of naivety does not go astray.
“We had a lot of connections and experience, which is helpful. But at the same time you do have to be a little bit naive in terms of what’s involved. If you understood how hard it would be, you may never make a decision to leave and start a business,” Starkey says.