'Brain gain' can fuel more start-ups

Start-up companies can give a boost to the US economy by creating millions of jobs, encouraging innovation, and boosting productivity. But how can we increase the number of start-ups?

Paul Sakuma/AP
This photo taken Friday, April 9, shows a Google sign at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google, itself a start-up, is known for growing its now-colossal business by acquiring numerous innovative start-up companies.

A recent post highlighted the importance of new and young companies to job creation in the U.S., implicitly raising an important question for policy makers: How can we increase the number of start-ups? Assuming it can be done, such an increase would not solve all of the economic challenges facing this country, but it would certainly help. New companies not only create millions of jobs across all sectors of the economy — they also introduce product and process innovations, boosting overall productivity.

Saying start-ups are important is one thing, of course; actually designing policies to increase their number is something else entirely. Before making any recommendations, for example, we need to know more about the universe of start-ups. Are they more prominent in some sectors than others? Does the impact of new companies differ across sectors or geographic regions? Should policy focus on encouraging more new firms, or on enhancing the growth of those already in existence? How would any such policies affect established companies, large and small?

Policymaking around entrepreneurship is evidently not clear-cut as there is still quite a bit we do not understand regarding start-ups. In the coming weeks we will try to explore these questions and illuminate the world of start-ups for policymakers. We’ll start with the lowest-hanging fruit of all, though one that may seem like poison to some in Washington: immigration.

It’s commonly accepted that the United States is a nation of immigrants, settled and populated by those fleeing persecution, seeking commercial opportunities in a new land or looking for a fresh start. We have always recognized the important contributions of immigrants to the U.S. economy, from entrepreneurs like Samuel Slater (textile mills) to Andrew Carnegie (steel) to Andy Bechtolsheim (Sun Microsystems) to the laborers and workers who built this country with their hands.

Recently, researchers have begun to paint a broader picture of the economic role of immigrant entrepreneurs. For example, Vivek Wadhwa and his research team have found that, from 1995 to 2006, fully one-quarter of new technology and engineering companies in the U.S. were founded by immigrants. In Silicon Valley, the figure was one-half. These firms constitute only a sliver of all companies, yet contribute an outstanding number of jobs and innovations to the economy.

It makes sense, then, that if we are seeking to increase the number of new companies started each year in the U.S., we might look to immigrants. It turns out that Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) are thinking precisely along these lines, introducing the Start-Up Visa Act (PDF) in the Senate. This bill would grant a two-year visa to immigrant entrepreneurs who are able to raise $250,000 from an American investor and can create at least five jobs in two years. Without question, such a visa is a good idea and this legislation hopefully paves the way for future actions that would reduce the pecuniary threshold and focus more on job creation.

Quite naturally, however, the promotion of immigrant entrepreneurs arouses suspicion among those on the right who harbor nativist views, and those on the left who perceive progressive immigration policies as a threat to American labor. Such views take the precisely wrong perspective: immigration, as we have seen, is a core American value. Immigrant entrepreneurs, moreover, come to the U.S. to make jobs for Americans, not take them.

Further, many of those who promote immigration as a way to boost economic growth narrowly focus on “high-skilled” entrepreneurs, those who might start technology companies. Clearly, as Wadhwa’s research indicates, such companies are important to American innovation. But we exclude non-technology entrepreneurs at our peril — every new company, including those founded by immigrants, represents pursuit of the American dream. By closing our borders to immigrants in general or welcoming only those with certain skills, we leave out many who will start new firms in other industries. If not in the United States, they will go elsewhere to start their companies and create jobs.

Entrepreneurs are implicit in Emma Lazarus’ poem: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Entrepreneurs start from nothing and work endlessly to build their companies, expressing their individual freedom through commerce. Why should we want to exclude them from the home of entrepreneurial capitalism?

ADDENDUM: Ben Wildavsky's new book, The Great Brain Race, will be released soon and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in higher education, globalization, and immigration. It is a fantastically written book and, as noted in the title of this post, Ben posits this wonderful notion of "brain circulation." When discussing globalization and immigration and job creation in the very recent past (and, for that matter, still in the present), we have usually spoken in terms like "brain gain" and "brain drain," implying a zero-sum contest between countries and regions. Ben's book makes quite clear that we are moving into a world of brain circulation, wherein people circulate among countries and institutions, starting companies, creating jobs, propagating innovations--adding to the economies of many countries at once.

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