Entrepreneurship and innovation: The popular belief
Entrepreneurs are widely believed to be the agents behind economic growth and innovation. They are, we are told, the movers and shakers who create new industries, unseat current leaders from their thrones, and open new frontiers for everyone. Popular culture tirelessly propagates one success story after another – from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who was glorified in "The Social Network" movie, to Tesla's Elon Musk, an immigrant who became a household name, to Google's Sergey Brin, whose internet search engine name has officially become a verb in English.
So persuasive is the narrative of the entrepreneurial technological prowess and success, that many countries – including developing countries that feel they are lagging behind – develop comprehensive policies to support and promote entrepreneurship and even set aside sizeable funds to invest in startups via government-run venture capital programs. But is this fascination with and belief in entrepreneurs justified? How likely are entrepreneurs to push the technological frontier and bring about the kind of change that governments want? Entrepreneurship Professor Sergey Anokhin from Kent State University says the hard evidence is far less convincing than the popular culture makes you believe.
The dark side of entrepreneurship
In a study of 35 countries over a 7-year period, Professor Anokhin from Kent State and Professor Joakim Wincent from Sweden's Lulea University of Technology show that there is no universally positive relationship between entrepreneurship and innovation. While for the world's leading economies such as the United States the positive link between startup rates and innovation may be true, for the developing economies the relationship is actually negative. Such countries are more likely to see innovation championed by the existing companies, not startups. With few exceptions, entrepreneurs there pursue opportunities of a different kind that are based on imitation and dissemination of others' ideas, and are not equipped to produce truly advanced "grand" innovations. On average, startups are less efficient than existing firms. Accordingly, if local governments support entrepreneurship, economic effectiveness may suffer, and innovation is less likely to occur. In fact, successful technological development in emerging economies is often associated with an aggressive entrepreneurial behavior of large corporations, not individual entrepreneurs. Such is the case, for instance, of South Korea with its chaebols .
The figure below shows the vastly different impact of startup rates on innovation and technological development (as measured by patent applications) across countries. Only rich countries can expect more entrepreneurship to result in more innovation, says Dr. Anokhin. For the lesser developed countries, as the plot demonstrates, an increase in startup rates will only lead to less, not more innovative activities. The problem, according to Sergey Anokhin, is that developing countries often look up to the leading economies when trying to design their own policies. Moreover, quite naturally, the very textbooks that the students across the world use, are written by the scholars from the world's leading countries, and do not take developing economies' context into account. Taken together, it often locks policy makers in assuming the relationship between entrepreneurship and innovation that will not hold in their particular parts of the world. The pro-entrepreneurship policies will not bring about the effects expected, and the limited resources will be wasted to support activities that are largely detrimental.
What it all means
It is time to recognize that the relationship between entrepreneurship and innovation varies across countries, says Professor Anokhin. That is why World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council for Fostering Entrepreneurship explicitly acknowledges that Silicon Valley success stories do not necessarily resonate in other parts of the world. Broad-strokes policies that aim at fostering entrepreneurship to boost country innovativeness may well be misguided. A contingency approach that takes regional specifics into account should be employed instead.