Australian Superannuation enters a Space Race

One of my favourite scenes in the recent film Hidden Figures features two IBM technicians who, after struggling for weeks to get NASA’s brand new electronic computer to work, walk into the room to find that Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician leading NASA’s human computing team, has already figured it out: a bright spark working away in the background showed the establishment the way.

This is a powerful theme, and the scene is made even more powerful when you consider the racial and gender stereotypes Ms Vaughan had to fight along the way.

I was reminded of this scene recently, after attending two very different superannuation events, held less than two weeks apart.

The first event was the ASFA Spotlight on Insurance. Held at the Sofitel Wentworth Ballroom, the guest speakers were a who’s who of the life insurance and superannuation industries. There was earnest discussion on the pressing issue of member engagement, and much head-nodding about how funds and insurers need to improve communication.

While the establishment was talking about engaging members through better communication, it seems like Spaceship has been out there actually doing it

The second event I attended, ‘Meet the Spaceship team and like-minded friends’, was quite a contrast.

Spaceship is Australia’s newest superannuation fund. Targeted at young professionals, they’re advertising aggressively on social media, and have been endorsed by several high-profile tech entrepreneurs, including Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes.

The Spaceship event was held at Tyro FinTechHub. Around 200 people shared beer and pizza and listened enthusiastically to CEO Paul Bennett’s talk about long-term investing, transparency of investment holdings, and the fund’s ambitious growth trajectory.

Whilst still only in pre-launch phase and not yet accepting contributions, Spaceship expects to have $100 million in committed funds by the end of this month.

While the establishment was talking about engaging members through better communication, it seems like Spaceship has been out there actually doing it.

Should the establishment be worried? Over drinks after the ASFA event, I asked one highly-respected leader in the super industry why Spaceship – a fund with enormous disruptive potential that currently doesn’t offer insurance to its members – didn’t rate a mention by any of the speakers at the event.

I questioned the actuarial implications of a potential mass exodus of young, healthy professionals from the large industry funds’ insurance arrangements. The response I got was quite dismissive, to the effect of: “I don’t think much will become of it.”

Will this be the superannuation industry’s Hidden Figures moment?

I’m not a rocket scientist, but I know that launching a rocket into space and launching a new business venture have something in common: if you don’t build enough momentum to reach escape velocity, you’ll come crashing down to earth. Accelerate fast enough, and the sky is the limit.

Time will tell whether Spaceship is destined for the stars or not – and there are certainly those in the investment community who have legitimate concerns about their fees and investment strategy – but given their results so far, it would be unwise to dismiss them just yet.