One of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs sails across the Atlantic, abseils down Las Vegas skyscrapers, and attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon - while running a £3billion business empire. But he is no fresh-faced 20-year-old.

For Richard Branson, his 58 years are an advantage on younger entrepreneurs, giving him wily life skills and an understanding of the world that an 18-year-old would struggle to match. Experts point out the need to harness the skills of “olderpreneurs”.

Indeed, most of our country’s finest entrepreneurs are over 50: Bernie Eccleston, 77; Sir Alan Sugar, 61: Duncan Bannatyne, 59, and Sir Philip Green, 56.

Yet there is still a widespread feeling that entrepreneurial spirit is synonymous with youth. And this is something which businessmen in the West Midlands are keen to challenge.

Research by the Prince’s Trust shows that while only 28 per cent of companies started by young people make it past the first five years, those businesses started by the older generation have a 70 per cent survival rate.

And last week the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson gave the Government’s backing to a new scheme aimed at encouraging the over 50s to get involved in business.

“There is no age limit on entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “During the current economic climate it is even more vital that older people have the confidence to make their business ideas a reality.”

Lord Mandelson announced a £2million scheme to support older entrepreneurs, with Government backing and financial support for start-up companies. The three-year programme was launched in partnership with the Bank of America and Prince’s Trust organisation PRIME - the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise.

Prince Charles described the under-employment of the over 50s as “a tragic waste of experience, of knowledge and skill.”

He said: “Here were people with at least a third of their lives in front of them, left feeling excluded from mainstream employment.

“People who had often already contributed so much to society, and learnt so much along the way. People who simply wanted to continue giving, and to develop and achieve as economically active adults.

“Now more than ever, our economy and society needs the skills and knowledge built up over so many years that older people have to offer.”

And for entrepreneurs in the West Midlands, older certainly is wiser.

Ian Carvell left the police force in 1996, and has since carved out a new role for himself as a businessman with a variety of projects.

“We’ve got a real advantage over 18 year olds,” explained the 58-year-old businessman. “They can’t ever have the years of life experience or contacts that we have. I really do feel that we have a big advantage over younger entrepreneurs.”

Mr Carvell has recently launched The Extra Mile Group, a security business providing training and qualifications for door staff and bodyguards, as well as team-building and fitness sessions. Drawing on his 30 years in the special forces Mr Carvell believes his time with the police has given him the grounding to run a successful business.

He was involved in undercover and anti-terrorist work, as well as diplomatic protection, guarding Diana, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother, and yet upon leaving the police force aged 46, he was left nonplussed.

“I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ I didn’t want to hang up my boots and play golf, and to be honest I had enjoyed such a demanding and exciting career that I didn’t think about what lay beyond.

“I had joined the police force when I was 16, and so had accumulated a lot of life experiences in that time. I don’t garden, didn’t want to sit around, and so I went into business.”

Recent research by PRIME underlined the need for harnessing the skills of older entrepreneurs. If one per cent of unemployed over 50s became self-employed, 25,000 jobs would be created and £175million would be saved in benefit payments.

The study showed that 16 per cent of 55-64 year olds have considered starting up their own business, but not acted upon their projects.

And West Midlands entrepreneur Michael Stokes-Roberts, who will celebrate his 80th birthday this year, believes that more over 50s should go into business.

“The older generation have certainly got something to offer,” he said. “We have plenty of experience that you just don’t learn in schools.

“I had a wonderful physics master who really inspired me, and I think that being in the RAF created a tremendous esprit de corps.”

Mr Stokes-Roberts, of Kings Bromley, has patented his horticultural invention - an electric hoe - and is working alongside Business Link, Advantage West Midlands and the Inventor’s Club to develop his designs.

“Age is certainly no barrier. The patent lawyer who has helped me tremendously with my work is in his 60s.”

And the grandfather of seven said that persistence and an optimistic view were the secrets of his success.