Research finds over a third of top innovators in the US were born abroad

by Ray Clancy on March 4, 2016

Technology innovators in the United States are far more likely to be expats with advance degrees than those who have worked their way up through a company, new research has found.

Immigration can be a highly contentious issue in many countries, including the US, but a new study shows that more than a third of America’s innovators were born overseas.

The research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington based think tank, found that immigrants make up 35.5% of US innovators, defined as people who make meaningful and marketable innovations to technology related industries.


An additional 10% of innovators were born in the United States but have at least one parent who was born abroad, the study also found.

“People may think technological innovation is driven by precocious college dropouts at start-up companies, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg,” said researcher Adams Nager, one of the authors.

“In reality, America’s innovators are far more likely to be immigrants with advanced degrees who have paid their dues through years of work in large companies. Unfortunately, one stereotype that turns out to be true is that women and U.S.-born minorities are significantly underrepresented. In fact, the extent of that gap is so stark that it caught us by surprise,” he added.

One stereotype that turns out to be true, the report says, is that women and US born minorities are largely underrepresented in the technology sector. Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other ethnicities made up just 8% of US born innovators, even though these groups account for 32% of the US population.

African Americans account for just 0.5% of US born innovators, even though they make up 13% of the population of the United States, and the report authors said the study highlights the need for more flexible immigration policies, and for boosting education in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We need policies to strengthen and expand the immigration pipeline that allows highly trained STEM workers to innovate in the United States, including foreign STEM graduates of US colleges and universities who often have a hard time staying legally,” the report says.

The study began by identifying so-called high impact and high value innovation, including patents filed for new inventions, and finding the people behind them. ITIF conducted an in-depth survey, gathering responses from more than 900 individuals who have won prestigious awards for their creations or have applied for international patents likely to have significant economic impact.

The research also found that the median age at which respondents produced their innovations was 47, implying years of work experience and deep knowledge in STEM fields and half of innovators majored in some form of engineering as an undergraduate while over 90% majored in a STEM subject as an undergraduate.

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