Immigrant “stars” power scientific startups

College-educated immigrants—particularly those who have a track record of career success—launch scientific startups at a far higher rate than native-born peers.

Immigrant-Science-Shulamit-KahnEntrepreneurship has long been a hallmark of the American identity, and studies have shown that recent American immigrants are among its most fervent supporters. Immigrants, for example, are more likely to launch new businesses than native-born citizens.

New research done by Questrom professor Shulamit Kahn adds nuance to this picture. Kahn, a co-author of an article in Small Business Economics, along with Megan MacGarvie and Giuilia LaMattina found that college-educated immigrants have a significant edge compared to their native-born peers in a particular subset of entrepreneurial endeavors: science-based startups. “Immigrants are more likely to create scientific startups than native-born citizens with similar kinds of education,” she says. “And really productive immigrants are even more likely to create scientific startups.”

To come to these conclusions, Kahn and her two co-authors burrowed deep into data from the National Science Foundation’s SESTAT, the Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System.

When it came to scientific startups—think high-tech R&D startups in fields such as biomedicine or engineering, not professional service businesses such as doctors’ offices—immigrants were twice as likely as non-immigrants to be entrepreneurs in a scientific field (4.14 percent compared to 2.08 percent).

The authors also found that high-performing immigrants—those whose wages were among top 30 percent in their field—were among the mostly likely to launch scientific startups. Immigrants who earned science degrees outside the United States and who hailed from non-English speaking countries were particularly well represented within this group.

While Kahn and her coauthors can’t speculate about the reasons that drive these differences, Kahn says that the results may help add context to today’s contentious immigration debates. Immigrants, she says, play a critical role in advancing science and the economy in the United States. “We don’t want to keep scientists and scientific entrepreneurs out of our country,” she says. “Instead, we want to find more ways to attract these scientific minds.”


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