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January 13, 2014

Brain Drain? The Issue of Inventor Mobility in Canada

In late December, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) released its most recent Intellectual Property Indicators Report. One of the most interesting contributions of the report, with pretty significant relevance for Canadian policy-makers, is its special section on the international mobility of inventors, which provides comparative data on the immigration and emigration of innovators to and from WIPO member states. In contrast to much ongoing work examining the international mobility of skilled workers, which is based on census data, the WIPO report draws on a unique data set – patent application documents submitted to WIPO – which provides a new and unique perspective on the inventor immigration and emigration.

From a Canadian perspective, the data in the WIPO report presents a mixed picture. On the positive side, the report notes that Canada remains a major destination for inventors. Over the period covered by the report (2006-2010) Canada attracted a total of 4,107 via immigration, which accounted for 2% of inventor immigration globally. This number places Canada 8th in the world in attracting immigrant inventors, trailing just behind France and Singapore but ahead of Japan, China, Sweden, and Australia.

Canada’s continued success in attracting innovators is certainly welcome news for Canadian policy-makers, who have been focused on increasing the country’s appeal as a destination for entrepreneurs through initiatives such as the Start-Up Visa program.

However, the WIPO report also illustrates that Canada’s success in attracting innovators has not been matched by similar success in retaining them. Despite adding 4,107 inventors between 2006 and 2010, Canada lost a total of 13,056 inventors through emigration over the same period, a net loss of 8,949. Further, while Canada accounted for 2% of global inventor immigration, we simultaneously accounted for 6.4% of total inventor emigration, ranking us 5th behind China, India, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Much of Canada’s inventor loss – as well as inventor emigration from other countries – is the result of the gravitational pull of the United States. Despite reports documenting the growing difficulties faced by immigrant entrepreneurs, the US remains by far the largest and most attractive destination for inventors, accounting for a full 57% of global inventor immigration.   For Canada, the data in the WIPO report indicate that the US accounts for approximately 87% of our inventor emigration. The Report also notes that the “bilateral corridor” between Canada and the United States is the third largest globally, trailing only China-US and India-US. For our part, Canada accounted for a little less than 12% of inventor emigration from the United States.

These trends raise the question of what – if anything –Canadian federal and provincial governments can do to encourage greater retention of inventors within Canada. Ultimately,  government is limited in itsability to counteract the inherent draw of the much larger American market and of innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, which is currently home to approximately 350,000 Canadians. However, helping build significant clusters locally, notably facilitating access to stage 2 capital that helps keep innovative companies in Canada will certainly help. So too will be showing would-be innovators how unique public policy initiatives such as the Canadian Digital Media Network’s Soft Landing Program can help them access new and emerging markets.  Whether we can do something about the weather is a question for another day. Ultimately, the WIPO data highlights that we can’t take our position in the global innovation economy for granted. Rather, to get the best and brightest here, and to keep them here, will require focused policy initiatives that position Canada as the best jurisdiction from where to launch new ideas.

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