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Technology Whiz Kids Over 50

Inspired ideas often come from older innovators

En español | The news is filled with stories of 20-something, hoodie-wearing, Mark Zuckerberg wannabes. But in fact, a study conducted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation found that twice as many tech entrepreneurs started their ventures in their 50s as did those in their early 20s. What's more, over the last decade, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity in general has been among those 55 to 64 years old, according to another Kauffman report.

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Digital Entreprenuers Over 50     David Lawrence

Gregg Segal

David H. Lawrence XVII, 57, created the app Rehearsal to help actors with the script memorization process.

Helping actors get the part

Five years ago, David H. Lawrence XVII was in a panic. In the middle of Los Angeles' rush hour traffic, the actor was attempting to memorize lines he had recorded on his smartphone for a last-minute audition. But, because the only way to rewind was to start the scene over again, he found himself desperately trying to find the right "play" icon with one sweaty hand, while gripping the steering wheel with his other. "I nearly got killed many times," says Lawrence. That's when it hit him: He should develop an app that would help actors easily learn their lines in a hurry—anywhere.

It was a natural fit for Lawrence, now 57, a lifelong techie. He had spent much of his professional life mixing entertainment and technology—as a radio DJ in New York and an early producer at AOL in Washington, before deciding at age 45 to move to LA and start anew as an actor. After a few years, he had some success, appearing on three seasons of the show Heroes. His acting work inspired him to create an app, which he named Rehearsal, into which a script can be loaded, and which contains features to help the memorization process. Lawrence designed the basic look and capabilities, partnered with a developer to do the finished coding and formed Sotto Voce Filmworks to sell the product. "This was a perfect blending of my interests in technology and entertainment," he says. Much to his surprise, it was a huge hit.

A new way to deliver the goods

Except for a stint in the Army in the 1950s, 82-year-old Richard Merians has always been his own boss. The son of a successful small-business owner, "I always knew I would work for myself," he said. And he's still at it, as a cofounder of Deliveright Logistics, a company in Bayonne, N.J., that uses technology to make furniture delivery faster and more efficient.

Merians spent much of his career founding companies that delivered large merchandise, like sofas and washing machines. "Everybody knows I've been in the business a long time," he says. "I don't have to prove my chops."

Merians system provides furniture retailers with a flat-screen TV, to be placed in their showrooms, that serves as an electronic catalog. Shoppers can browse thousands of products from multiple manufacturers on the Web and order online immediately. Deliveright truckers pick up those goods from the factory and deliver them to consumers in three to five days. Merians thinks his active physical lifestyle also has helped keep him vibrant. That includes working out at least three times a week at a gym, and kayaking and sailing at his Cape Cod beach house. "I try not to act like an old man," he says.

Digital Entreprenuers Over 50     Jeanne Pinder

Gregg Segal

Jeanne Pinder, 61, started a website to help consumers understand medical bills and make better health care choices.

Shedding light on health care costs

Jeanne Pinder remembered the sheer exasperation she'd experienced arguing with her health insurance provider over a $1,419 hospital bill for an antinausea drug that could have been bought at a local drug supply company for less than $3—and a lightbulb went off. A former New York Times editor, she was enrolling in a course in entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York and needed to arrive with a concept for a start-up that could make use of her reporting skills. "I came up with the crazy idea I'd help people understand their medical bills," says Pinder, now 61. She envisioned a website that would gather information about the price of everything from blood tests to botox injections. Called Clearhealthcosts.com, it would help consumers make more-informed health care choices.

It was a tall order, but Pinder says she's always had a techie bent. At the Times, she had helped launch a regular section about tech. She threw herself into learning coding basics and hired outside software developers only to do the hard stuff. Still, because of both her age and her gender, she frequently encounters people who underestimate her technical skills.

She now has formed partnerships with five news organizations, including public radio stations in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with a combined audience of 2.5 million people, according to Pinder. "There's a really deep need for this information," she says.

Digital Entreprenuers Over 50  - Ramesh Jain

Gregg Segal

Ramesh Jain, 66, will launch an app to link photos with user emotions.

Staying mentally young

Ramesh Jain got the start-up bug a couple of decades ago. While spending a year at Stanford University as a visiting professor of computer science, he was stunned by the whirlwind of entrepreneurial activity among his fellow professors. "You're developing something people really can use," he says. "And it makes you a better researcher."

Now, Jain, 66, who is a professor at the Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California in Irvine, is launching his seventh enterprise, one that, he says, "brings together many concepts and ideas I've been researching for the past 20 years."

The start-up will sell an app called Krumbs that provides a way to link photos, much as text in documents can now be connected. Users tap an emoji that both indicates their feelings about a picture and takes the photo. Krumbs then composes a relevant caption. In addition, on each picture there are four categories of links—events, places, emotions and people—that form the system for associating photos.

Jain finds that he thrives on working with forward-looking people in their 20s and 30s. "They talk about the future all the time," he says. "And to be honest, I don't ever feel much older than them." Another dividend: His son, Neil, is a company cofounder.

Caregiver check-in

It was during a lunch in Atlanta with an acquaintance from church that Allen Barnes, 55, realized he was hearing about a really exciting idea for a business. Barnes had just left his most recent gig as CEO of a manufacturing firm and wasn't interested in launching a company from scratch. But this one, he thought, really seemed to fill a need: a digital system for verifying the credentials of third-party caregivers, from nurses to physical therapists, who visit residents in senior living communities. The result was a company called Accushield. Caregivers sign in using a digital platform housed in a kiosk; it tells them what documents, from liability insurance to immunization records, are required by the facility. After that information is scanned into the Accushield platform, the next time caregivers sign in, the system verifies their credentials and prints out a badge allowing them entry. Since forming the company, Barnes has discovered how much he enjoys working with young tech-savvy colleagues. "You don't ever want to stop learning," he says.

Anne Field is a business journalist in Pelham, N.Y., who focuses on entrepreneurship and social enterprise.

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