Where creative ideas can incubate

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Barbara Ruben

Len Biegel, of Bethesda, Md., is developing a social media platform for retirees looking for ways to spend their time productively. He has been utilizing the resources of 1776 — an incubator for entrepreneurs of all ages, located in downtown Washington — that provides work space, networking and mentoring opportunities.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

America’s Founding Fathers waged one kind of revolution 240 years ago. Today, at a Washington, D.C. company called 1776, a 21st century revolution is underway, helping foster innovative business start-ups in areas like education, healthcare and energy.

In a sprawling loft space on the 12th floor of a downtown office building, millennials bend over laptops at communal tables, sitting in chairs that look like they were scrounged from their grandparent’s basements (actually, they were chosen by a professional decorator). When they need privacy for phone calls, they tug the door shut on an authentic red London phone booth and speak into their smartphones.

Len Biegel, who joined 1776 last fall, found himself enveloped by the constant hum of conversation and tapping of laptop keyboards at this incubator for entrepreneurs as soon as he exited the elevator on his first visit to 1776.

“When I first walked in, I was struck by two things. There’s a chandelier made from an old rusty bedspring, and there was a guy lying on a couch with a laptop on his belly waiting for an appointment.

“So it’s a bit of the new generation,” said Biegel, who describes himself as 65+, about four decades older than many of the fledgling entrepreneurs at 1776 (tagline: Where Revolutions Begin).

Mentoring and networking

The company, which opened in 2013, requires would-be start-up creators to complete an application process. Once accepted as members, they are offered workspace, access to mentors, and myriad networking opportunities with their fellow entrepreneurs and established businesspersons.

“We talk about 1776 in terms of trying to accelerate innovation in life-critical industries. So that’s a focus on education, energy, healthcare, smart cities, improving overall quality of life, transportation, things like that,” said Andrew Dolan, 1776’s director for special projects. “It’s not easy to start a company to begin with, let alone in one of those industries.”

Members pay 1776 a monthly fee ranging from $100 to $600, depending on whether they work remotely or in the shared space. Those who successfully flesh out their ideas may eventually get seed money from 1776, which works with a variety of funding partners — from Microsoft to American University — looking for the next brilliant idea.

Social media for retirees

And that’s what Biegel is hoping for. He is working to create a new social media platform to help retirees find the most productive way to spend their time.

“A couple years ago, when I’d meet people who were retired, I’d ask them ‘What are you doing?’ A number of people described very productive use of time.

“But there was a surprising number who expressed frustration or dismay over suddenly having time: ‘Gee, I don’t set the alarm clock anymore. I’m catching up on reading. I took the big trip. I’m still trying to figure myself out.’ A lot told me about the frustrations of finding part-time work,” he said.

So Biegel is launching his Dexter3 website to enable those who have “figured themselves out” to communicate ideas and insight on what comes next to those who haven’t.

As for the name?

“My wife said when you’re older you need to be agile, dexterous. This is the third phase of your life, so it’s Dexter 3. I was a little apprehensive about it because it sounds obscure, but when you look back at Yahoo or Google, what were those names to start with?” asked Biegel, who says he’s on his third career.

The first was in broadcasting, working with special events news coverage for CBS in New York and as program director and executive producer for Metromedia (now Fox) in New York and Washington.

Biegel then segued into crisis communications, where he counseled companies and trade groups on how to respond to everything from the Tylenol tampering case, to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina.

Age is no barrier

Biegel, who lives in Bethesda, Md., says he finds it energizing that he and just a handful of others working on their ideas at 1776 are over 40.

“I don’t think age is any kind of barrier to engaging in conversations. It’s a lot of give and take.

“But I’ve learned to be careful of telling stories that go back 20 and 30 years to earlier experiences of mine, because they’re not relevant.

“My first job at CBS was working for Walter Cronkite. I mentioned that to a millennial, and it was like, ‘Who was that?’” I was embarrassed. So I have to be careful not to get into trivia that’s totally irrelevant, but rather talk about today’s world.”

And he’s far from the oldest one there. “I saw a very tall, stately gentleman [working on a project], and I said, ‘I never do this, but I have to ask you, how old are you?’ He said, ‘I’m 93.’ So age doesn’t matter.”

That man is Sumner Myers, who is developing an app to help overweight members of the military get trim.

And there are other older entrepreneurs at 1776 as well. “Age is all in the mind,” said Prashant “PK” Kothari, who says he’s in his late 40s. Kothari has already founded four companies, and wants to build on one of them — a real estate information services company called String.

He has a small office in Bethesda, and 650 employees in his native India working on mortgage processing and title searches. Now he wants to find a way to more automate that in his newest venture, which he’s dubbing String 2.0. So he decided to give 1776 a try.

I said, “Let me get out of my office and come to a new environment and hang out with a whole bunch of entrepreneurs doing different things, see if it would be an invigorating experience.”

His wife had a different view. She told him he was going through a midlife slump. “I said, “Well, that’s one way of looking at it, but I’m not getting a crimson Ferrari or the trophy wife!”

Kothari says it’s been a successful venture so far. “I have a lot of fun hanging out with the younger people, so there are no issues [regarding age difference] at all.

“In multiple ways it’s beneficial,” he said. “One is that I am extremely curious and entrepreneurial. I love learning about new products, new services, new problems people are solving.”

Making math friendly

Former math teacher Rebecca Klemm, 66, agrees. She’s used many 1776 denizens as sounding boards for her ideas about making math less intimidating for students.

“[1776] makes available people who are interested in new ideas,” she said. “The campus environment as an incubator is fabulous to me.

“It’s where I’m meeting the most useful people that I can toss ideas at, and they don’t just say, ‘No, I’ve never seen that, therefore it can’t be very good.’ They say, ‘Let’s see how it can be useful or not.’”

Klemm, who lives in Washington, D.C., is the creator of a company called Numbers Alive! One facet of the business is a collection of soft, stuffed numbers in various sizes that kids can hold, rearrange, and use as pillows.

“I asked, ‘What could I do to alleviate anxiety over math?’” I had been a seamstress, so I said, ‘Make them soft. Make them friendly. Make them things you can count on.’” (Pun intended?)

“They’re not in a book, they’re not black and white, they’re not abstract. They’re actually friendly and tell you the story of who they are.”

In addition, Klemm has designed a collection of geometric puzzles in which students must be able to figure out how to arrange the pieces to make shapes like parallelograms and hexagons.

She has also written the first in an intended series of children’s travel books featuring her friendly numbers. In it, the numbers explore Washington. On one page, a bewigged numeral 1 visits the Washington Monument to give both history and math lessons, learning, for example that the monument is 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches tall.

And while NumbersAlive! has so far been self-funded, Klemm hopes to find interested investors through her work with 1776.

“It’s my tribe. And I didn’t know there was a tribe to be part of. I’ve been an inventor all my life, and basically [as such] you’re over here on the fringe. This [incubator] is a place for being an inventor-entrepreneur as opposed to buying into a franchise or company.

“It’s wonderful at this stage of life,” Klemm continued. “When I was their age, it wasn’t available for people to get together and try out new things, and learn how it’s OK to try and fail and change and be creative.”

Learn more about 1776 at www.1776.vc.