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What’s the face of U.S. innovation? Don’t think Bill Gates

Source | : By David Malakoff

The archetypal U.S. innovator is not a young white college dropout building a startup in his garage, argues a wide-ranging new study of the demographics of U.S. innovators.

Rather than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,  a middle-aged male Ph.D. toiling at a large U.S. firm—and perhaps born abroad—is more likely to be behind the next big thing, conclude researchers from George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C.–based think tank.

“Contrary to popular conceptions about precocious college dropouts with big ideas, U.S. innovators actually tend to be experienced and highly educated,” concludes the study, which is based on a survey of more than 900 people associated with “meaningful and marketable” recent inventions. In addition, nearly half are immigrants or children of immigrants.

But the research does confirm one stereotype: Just 12% of innovators were women, and less than 8% of those born in the United States were a member of a minority group. “Unfortunately … women and U.S.-born minorities are significantly underrepresented,” says lead author Adams Nager, a policy analyst at ITIF.

A patent search

Researchers have long tried to paint a portrait of the relatively small group of people who invent the technologies and products, from new software to life-saving drugs, which mold economies and reshape societies. Some have examined how these innovators are educated, for instance, whereas others have explored how work settings relate to successful innovation. But researchers hadn’t tried to capture a detailed demographic snapshot of the men and women who are “now driving innovation in the United States,” says David Hart, a political scientist at GMU and a co-author of the new study.

To assemble that picture, the researchers first identified “high-value innovations” in the United States between 2011 and 2015, as well as the people behind them. To find the innovations, they scoured R&D Magazine’s annual list of the top technologies introduced into the market, and sampled databases of so-called triadic patents filed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. (Such patents tend to reflect the most promising innovations, the authors argue, because they are expensive and time-consuming to obtain.) Overall, the team assembled a list of 2651 innovations (not all have yet been commercialized), together with the names of 9575 people connected to them. Then, the researchers emailed a 27-question survey to about 6400 of the innovators, producing 923 usable surveys. “There were points where I thought we might not get it done,” Hart says. “This was difficult research.”

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