A Magic Pony and America's unicorns: how immigrants spark innovation

A yellow dandelion grows through wood planks in Zahara de los Atunes, March 18, 2007. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo  (SPAIN) FOR BEST QUALITY IMAGE ALSO SEE: GM1E87B1BXZ01 - RTR1NNFS

'Why have so many “brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil”?' Image: REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

Alice Gast
President, Imperial College London
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

During the holidays I read The Undoing Project, the compelling new book by Michael Lewis. He describes the incredible relationship and amazing journey taken by Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman. Among the many inspiring parts of their story is a serendipitous meeting with the Canadian Don Redelmeier and the incredibly fruitful collaboration he subsequently had with Kahneman. Their brainstorming sessions challenged cognitive biases and medical orthodoxy in areas as diverse as minimizing antibiotic prescriptions and debunking the myth that arthritic pain is connected to the weather.

In 1993 Redelmeier and Kahneman published a groundbreaking study that proved the “peak-end rule”: people’s memories of painful experiences are more positive if the painful activity ends in a mildly less painful manner, even if the overall discomfort is prolonged.

In the following years, Redelmeier and Kahneman applied this crucial insight to uncomfortable medical procedures, like colonoscopies, which, when modified to end in a less painful manner, made patients more willing to undergo further examinations. Other scholars seized on their exceptional insights and the medical profession is still finding new applications to this day.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Daniel Kahneman at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, November 20, 2013.     REUTERS/Larry Downing   (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ENTERTAINMENT PROFILE) - RTX15M15
US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Daniel Kahneman at a ceremony in 2013 Image: REUTERS/Larry Downing

One of the most important facts about these innovations is that they came from migrants. While Redelmeier’s moves between the US and Canada are typical among North American academics, Kahneman’s journey was different. Born in Tel Aviv, Kahneman had Lithuanian parents and grew up in Paris. Much of his childhood was spent on the run in occupied France, before he settled in Israel in 1948, moving to the US decades later.

Something happens when brilliant people move and cultures collide and collaborate. Eric Weiner points out that we see it in Einstein’s “miracle year” of 1905 when he published four seminal papers right after moving from Switzerland to Germany.

We also find it closer to home when the Hungarian-born Dennis Gabor fled Germany for Britain, where he pioneered holography at Imperial College London – an achievement recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physics. Indeed, a remarkable number of the greatest scholars were once foreign students or postdocs. Among the Nobel Prize recipients in physics and chemistry since 1980, almost 40% were working in a foreign country; in 2016, this was true for all of the six winners.

It is no coincidence that 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first or second generation immigrants; or that more than half of America’s billion-dollar start-ups, known as unicorns, were founded by immigrants like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Alexander Asseily. One quarter of those unicorn-founders initially came to the US as students, typically of science, technology, engineering, medicine (STEM) or business. The impact of international students who stay after graduating is felt far beyond billion-dollar start-ups. A one percentage point increase in immigrant college graduates results in between 9 and 18% more patents per capita, benefiting the whole economy.

So, to borrow Weiner’s phrase, why have so many “brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil”?

The key ingredient is not migration alone, but the ability to work with people from different backgrounds, cultures and nationalities – often of the host country. This is the spirit that drives the world’s best universities and businesses, which are, more often than not, in partnership with each other. Scientists collaborating across borders make discoveries and have insights that benefit from different approaches to problems, thought processes and perspectives.

But how can we capture more of that spirit in the midst of so much talk of a backlash against globalization, including at Davos this week?

As the World Economic Forum focuses on responsive and responsible leadership, we should not underestimate the ability of our citizens to understand the value of international collaboration and the importance of students from abroad. According to a ComRes poll for Universities UK, three-quarters of Britons, including most of those who voted for Brexit, would like to see the same level or more of international students.

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People understand and celebrate the effect the world’s best foreign students, graduates, academics and entrepreneurs have on local economies. They often collaborate with domestic students to create valuable inventions.

We see this in Chinese computer scientist Zehan Wang who founded Magic Pony, a machine-learning and artificial intelligence (AI) firm, with his British Imperial College classmate Rob Bishop. They sold the firm to Twitter for $150 million last year and are now building Twitter’s global AI R&D centre in London.

Take the young Mexican, Nigerian and British team behind fast-growing business Gravity Sketch, who have won support from the James Dyson Foundation. They are developing the world’s most advanced 3D sketching tool that could turn anyone with a smartphone into an industrial designer.

Malav Sanghavi, a London-based design engineer from India, is grabbing the attention of international investors as he invents products like an ultra-low-cost baby incubator set to be exported to the developing world, and smart sockets so amputees do not have to replace artificial limbs as their muscles change shape. Malav works with local talent in Britain and contacts in India through a UK graduate entrepreneur visa. We need more of this sort of job-creating policy innovation, like this type of visa.

This is why the United States’ recent move – allowing some STEM PhDs to remain in the country for up to three years after completing their doctorates – is so wise. As leaders of Western countries rethink their immigration policies, the contributions of innovative migrants like Kahneman and Musk or Gabor and Wang should be top of their minds.

We need visas for PhDs, graduate entrepreneurs and others like them, and we need reliable policy decisions to ensure that brilliant scholars can move and have their “miracle year”. The whole world will benefit.

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