Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

When Kim Gustafson moved to Vail Valley in Colorado more than a decade ago, he was 54 and had recently retired as an executive in the office-equipment business. But he wasn’t ready to stop working.

“I’m not the type of person who wanted to play checkers,” he says.

Gustafson is one of a growing number of baby boomers starting businesses later in life — though that was not his original plan. Initially, he worked as a ski instructor. But he found that degenerative arthritis and the wear-and-tear of his rigorous skiing schedule were exacerbating an injury he suffered several years earlier after falling from a ladder.

Gustafson sought treatment at the Steadman Clinic, an orthopedic surgery center based in Vail, eventually undergoing five knee surgeries. To continue to teach skiing, he was told, he would need to wear a hard, cumbersome knee brace every time he hit the slopes.

As he grew accustomed to the brace, he began to wonder whether people with less vulnerable joints than his might benefit from a more pliable and comfortable form of knee support — perhaps a pair of tights. To explore this possibility, he turned to a group of biomechanical experts at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute, a branch of the Steadman Clinic.

Coincidentally, the researchers had been contemplating something similar, and they began drawing sketches of nylon and spandex tights embedded with bands of rigid fabric to protect the knees by restoring them to their natural alignment.

Gustafson and scientists from the institute struck up an unusual agreement: They would develop the tights together, and if the product reached the marketplace, the institute would receive royalties to be applied to future research projects or the hiring of scientists. Within two years, Gustafson started a company he eventually called Opedix and began selling the biomechanically engineered tights online.

His decision to start a business in his late 50s is far from unusual. A report this year by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation found that late-in-life entrepreneurs — ages 55 to 64 — now comprise 23 percent of new business owners, up from 14 percent in 1996. And the results of a survey released this month by the Pew Research Center showed that baby boomers were less likely to say that job security was “extremely important” to them compared with two younger groups: millennials and members of Generation X — suggesting an inclination toward entrepreneurship.

The trend is partly rooted in a quest for personal fulfillment, says Stewart Friedman, director of the Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Among boomers, of which I am one, our whole early life in the ’60s and ’70s was about self-actualization,” Friedman says, adding that many in his generation are finally now revisiting career aspirations they abandoned years ago.

Age and experience, however, aren’t always considered assets in wider entrepreneurial circles, says Elizabeth Isele, founder of Senior Entrepreneurship Works, which runs entrepreneurship training courses for those older than 50. She says many lenders are skeptical of older people’s ability to repay loans and the biggest challenge for this age group is access to capital.

“Part of that is because people haven’t heard of senior entrepreneurship,” she says.

So far, Gustafson has self-funded his venture along with his brother, David. But even for older entrepreneurs investing their own money in startups, the financial risks of a new venture can be daunting.

Opedix faces several challenges, including the fact that it is competing in a crowded field.

“There’s a long history of companies trying to come up with technologies to restore normal function to an injured joint or prevent injury to a joint that’s at risk,” says Bruce Beynnon, director of research at the department of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine.

Opedix has struggled to differentiate itself from another type of garment that’s popular with runners and looks very similar: compression tights. What sets Opedix tights apart, Gustafson says, are the bands of stiff fabric that descend down the leg from the hips, wrap around the knees and extend to the ankles.

The added complexity confers a higher price: Opedix tights sell for $225 a pair, usually twice the price of compression tights. But to the uneducated eye, the two tights are virtually indistinguishable, which can confuse shoppers. (This year, Opedix also began selling shorts designed to restore the pelvis’ natural alignment; they cost $165.)

One of Gustafson’s strategies for educating potential customers is to put the tights in the hands of physical therapists, trainers, sports instructors and professional athletes who are likely to understand the banding technology — and, he hopes, to spread the word.

Gustafson sees an advantage in making a product geared toward the boomer population. The tights could hold wide appeal for the many members of this generation who have benefited from medical advances and plan to stay active into their 70s and 80s. By 2017, the older-than-50 set will control 70 percent of the disposable income in the United States and is expected to comprise about half of the population, according to data compiled by Nielsen.

Gustafson says he believes the experience and skills he cultivated in his earlier career, which included tenures at two startups, have been a plus in his work at Opedix. For instance, he knew how laborious it would be to develop and test a new product, and he understood the benefits of working in a field he liked.

“I love the ski business,” he says. “It’s a whole lot more exciting and interesting than office equipment, I’ll tell you.”