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Who Innovates, And How?

An ITIF report reveals the demographic of US innovators

15Mar

2010's 'The Social Network' opens with a scene showing Mark Zuckerberg not yet inspired to create Facebook. Our young, white, male protagonist then stumbles across what would go on to become Forbes' 10th most valuable brand, drops out of college and gets to work building an empire. When we think of innovation, this template comes to mind - Bill Gates and Steve Jobs also dropped out. The image of the (exclusively male) bedroom startup is prominent, but these examples are very much special cases. Their notoriety is largely thanks to the ubiquity of their product, their age at the time of the company's conception, the effect of their product on the average citizen's life and the subsequent folklore surrounding them.

According to a report from ITIF, though, the stereotype is wildly wide of the mark. ITIF's survey drew workable responses from over 900 of the US' most important innovators. And the pool is not necessarily made up of revolutionaries and game changers; innovation in this case is defined as those 'who have made meaningful, marketable contributions to technology-intensive industries as award-winning innovators and international patent applicants.' In fewer words, it is made up of those on the front-line, innovating effectively with perhaps fewer eureka moments.

The numbers offset the image of the tech-savvy young American. In fact, 46% of the innovators polled in the US are immigrants, with the majority of these immigrants coming from Europe (35.4%) and Asia (close to 50%). US-born minorities are fell less well represented, though, with Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other ethnicities making up a paltry 8% of those polled. ITIF, as one of their four primary conclusions drawn from the data, urge the improvement of STEM education and empowerment for students of all backgrounds.

Also, contrary to the stereotype of the enlightened college dropout creating the next big thing, quite the opposite is true. A huge 55.7% of US innovators hold a Ph.D, with 21.8% holding masters or other graduate degrees. The Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world - those without college degrees at the time of innovation - make up just 2.9%, with the number particularly low in STEM fields. The strength of their products made dropping out viable, but their situation is incredibly rare; in the world of day-to-day innovation, the vast majority of those making changes are both experienced and highly educated. The need for experience, perhaps contrary to expectations, is great. The median age for an innovator is 47, and almost all are between the ages of 26 and 65; the tech-savvy youngsters (16-25) make up less than 4% of innovators. These things take time, and seniority gained through experience is often integral in seeing ideas put into practice.

Worryingly, though, only 12% of US innovators are women - a number reflective of STEM fields more generally, where women still make up less than 25% of the workforce. A similar report in the early 2000s found the number of female innovators to be closer to 5%; involvement is growing, but far more could be done. Both numbers are, also, far smaller than the share of STEM degrees going to women. A filter-in time is natural, given the rise in women taking STEM degrees. But, clearly, there is still plenty of work to be done demographically; there is almost certainly no disparity in talent, and the active widening of the talent pool by the opening of STEM positions to both women and US minorities could only create value.

The other interesting data point to come out of the survey regarded the size of the companies innovating. While the stereotype of small startups as hotbeds of innovation may hold some water, generally the groundbreaking innovation happens at big firms - those with over 500 employees. Of the respondents, 57% worked for these larger companies, with smaller companies - those with 25 employees or fewer - contributing 16%. Resources are part of the problem; of these smaller companies, 60% receive public grants for innovations, something that ITIF believes should be extended across the country, with it currently concentrated in California. 58% of respondents picked a lack of funding as one of the key inhibitors of commmercialization of ideas.

The government's role in the furthering of innovation is key. And, with initiatives springing up to get more women into STEM and for greater involvement of US-born minorities, the personnel behind innovation in the US could undergo serious change in the coming years, and only those opposed to positive change will forego the benefits. 

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