The Real Innovators: Its Not Who You Think
The popular tech entrepreneur story goes something like this: A rebellious genius goes against tradition, drops out of college and begins an IT company in his parents’ garage, the company grows beyond his wildest dreams and only a few short years later the teen-wiz lists his company and makes millions, if not billions. Just think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
While this version of the tech dream is certainly true and there are indeed wiz-kids that succeed by going against convention in their early years, a new study suggests it is by far the exception and not the norm.
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a US based think tank, very recently published a survey of more than 900 tech innovators; individuals who have won awards, filed patents or otherwise made an impact in the tech industry. The survey covered a selected group of people who have all made sizable contributions in the fields of materials sciences and information technology. What they found turns the popular myth on its head.
Who are these tech innovators typically?
Innovators are well educated. A full 80% have at least one advanced degree with 55% of these innovators having a PhD in the STEM sciences – science, technology, math and engineering. Half of innovators majored in some form of engineering as an undergraduate. The STEM sciences prove to be the bedrock of technology invention and advancement. A further surprise: innovators are more likely to hold graduate degrees from public universities than private ones.
Innovators are older. The median age was 47 and most have spent years working their way up in their respective disciplines and applications. In fact, more than half are over the age of 45 before they reach their inventive peak. Many work at large companies and contrary to the stereotype did not boldly walk into the Silicon Valley elite as teenagers the way the Jobs and Zuckerberg biographies might have you think.
Innovators have a diverse heritage. More than 35% of the tech inventors were born outside of the United States which is a much higher percentage than the general US population. Another 10% have at least one parent born outside of the US. Almost a fifth of the sampled group are not US citizens. Europe, India and China are the birthplaces of most of the US’s immigrant innovators. If you were born in one of these countries you are five time more likely to produce a technological breakthrough than if you were US born.
Innovators work for large companies. In contrast to the popular notion that large firms are copiers and small firms the innovators, this study finds that large companies are the most important contributors to U.S. innovation: About 60% of private-sector innovations originate from businesses with more than 500 employees; with only 16% originating from firms with fewer than 25 employees. Medium sized companies (100 – 500 employees) were the least likely to produce technological inventions.
All the above findings suggest that in fields of technological advancement, the traditional path to success is still the most prevalent. In contrast to the rebellious college drop-out narrative, the most likely tech innovations come from the hard-working immigrant steadily climbing his way up the educational and company ladder, to find the pinnacle of success in the later years of his life.
Elon Musk, the South African born and schooled founder of SpaceX had this to say, summarizing in simple terms today’s tech innovators: “I usually describe myself as an engineer, that’s basically what I have been doing since I was a kid. I don’t spend my time pontificating about high concept things. I spend my time solving engineering and manufacturing problems.”
Source: A Nagar, D Hart, S Ezell and R Atkinson. The Demographics of Innovation in the United States. ITIF. 24 Feb 2016.