The average age of CEOs at startups is creeping up, so is the average age of Nobel Prize winners. Why age and wisdom still matter

There see no boundaries, see no limits, see no obstacle that they can’t hurdle, Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capital firms said of entrepreneurs in their mid- to late 20s.

With today’s startups dominated by a generation of young people who have grown up not knowing what a typewriter looks like, the world can be forgiven for thinking innovation belongs to the young.

The truth is a bit further than that, according to research. The average age it takes for ground-breaking work, such as Nobel Prize-winning work and technical innovation, has increased by nearly a decade since the beginning of the 20th century.

The effect is most pronounced in natural sciences, where the average age of Nobel Prize winning work in physics is 48 years old, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US. (Actual Nobel Prize awards may not materialise until much later). 

While this closely mirrors the area of research – in the field of theoretical physics for instance – success came early to scientists in the 1900, at around 30. But by 2000, the average age of Nobel Prize winning work had risen to 40, and is now 48.

This increase is partly a result of longer life spans and an aging population. It also reflects the additional years of education required to make scientific breakthroughs, according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

Sound management and financial decision-making come with the passage of time but younger CEOs do show more gumption when it comes to taking risks and seeking out innovators to help their companies grow, HBR says.

Further, start-ups in some industries, such as biotech and business software, gain an edge from the experience that comes with a founder’s age.

Time magazine says research by Vivek Wadhwa, an academic and tech entrepreneur, and the Kauffman Foundation, show the average age of successful start-up founders in these and other high-growth industries was 40. And high-growth start-ups are almost twice as likely to be launched by people over 55 as by people 20 to 34.

However, younger business owners tend to hire younger inventors. This is based on the number of patents filed by companies headed by younger CEOs.

Peak for good financial decision making

The peak for good financial decision making is 53. So while creativity is probably in decline for most people by the time they hit 50, other critical management skills are still improving, according to the HBR. Despite what the popular belief is, the average age of startup founders seem to be creeping up, according to trends reported by various startup organisations in the US.

At Y Combinator, a startup seed fund based in Mountain View, the average age of its 112 company founders in its 2013 class of entrepreneurs was 28, up from roughly 26 two years earlier.

And at the Founders Institute, a Mountain View-based startup incubator, the average age of its 330 enrolled participants (2013) was 35; it was 29 when Founders Institute began in 2009.

At TechStars, another incubator that operates across the US, the average age of its current crop of founders in 2013 was around 32, up from about 25 several years ago.

The world's youngest entrepreneur is Nick D'Aloisio whose Summly app received funding from Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing's Horizon Ventures. He was only 15 when he his received his funding. Summly has since been acquired by Yahoo for $38 million.

There is however no limits to age when it comes to setting up a new business. Harland Sanders, or Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, started his franchise when he was 65, while on a pension.