Migration and Innovation – Oliver Koppel and Enno Kohlisch


The bad news for Germany’s sophisticated economy is that the innovation of native Germans is in decline. The good news is that migrants are more than compensatory.

Oliver koppel

In March, UÄŸur Åžahin and Özlem Türeci of BioNTech were awarded the Federal Cross of Merit of Germany for their patent-protected development of the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine. Both are emblematic of the indispensable contribution that migration now makes to Germany’s innovative strength, which we have quantified in a recent analysis.

The analysis is based on the totality of all patents for which protection was sought in Germany between 1994 and 2018 (e.g. by registration with the German Patent and Trademark Office, the European Patent Office, patents or the World Intellectual Property Organization) and in which at least one inventor residing in Germany was involved.

innovation, migration
Enno Kohlisch

The assessment was carried out using a specially developed first names module, which contains the approximately 38,000 different first names of all inventors resident in Germany who have been involved in a patent application seeking protection in the country. since 1994. These first names were assigned to one or more of a total of 24 language areas, to determine the region of the world where the person’s roots were most likely to be found. About 92% of the first names were specific to a defined linguistic area: UÄŸur and Özlem, for example, in Turkish, like Heinz and Hildegard in German.

Migration context

In total, 11.2% of all patents developed in Germany can now be attributed entirely to inventors with an immigrant background. In 1994, this figure was only 3.8 percent and has been rising steadily since. In other words, shortly after reunification, inventors with an immigrant background were responsible for barely one in 25 patents developed in Germany, but now the ratio is one in nine.

Of course, inventors living abroad also contribute to innovation in Germany. However, since this study measures the explicit contribution of migration to Germany, people residing abroad were excluded from the analysis. An inevitable under-registration of migration appears, as first names specific to the German-speaking region are also found in Austria, parts of Switzerland and northern Italy, among others.

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The bottom line is that the cumulative number of patent applications developed in Germany increased by 2.9% between 2008 and 2018. Those of inventors in the German-speaking area, however, fell by 1.8%, while those of Inventors from non-German speaking areas increased by 84 percent – and among them inventors from Indian and Chinese regions by 303 and 139 percent respectively.

Demographic evolution

In other words, the moderate growth in any event of patent applications developed in Germany over the last ten years is exclusively due to inventors with an immigrant background. Without them, German economy-wide patent activity would have fallen.

Admittedly, the cumulative performance of the patents of inventors in the German-speaking area continued to increase between 1994 and 2000. However, it has stagnated since then and even declined over the past ten years. The causes are demographic changes, exacerbated by bottlenecks in the labor market in qualifications and technical-scientific professions, which are largely responsible for research, development and, therefore, patent applications. .

The simplest way to enumerate the demographic problem is that 13.5 million people born in Germany during the decade of the “baby boomers” gave birth to only 7.9 million children and children. adolescents aged 5 to 14. The consequences have long reached universities. And as during this millennium, it has not been possible to motivate more students each year to follow technical-scientific subjects, the pool of potential German inventors – and therefore their overall patent performance – has been shrinking for years.


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An unhelpful point of view is that the capacity of higher education should be reduced – cynically called the siphoning of demographic “returns”. The only necessary and sensible solution is to at least maintain third-level capabilities and encourage foreign students to study in Germany.

International reputation

A closer look at the influx of technical-scientific specialists shows that they often emigrated to Germany as fully educated academics from abroad. But in addition to traditional immigration into the labor market, Germany has for years pursued another very successful path: immigration through higher education. In particular, German education in engineering and information technology enjoys a very good international reputation and the fact that studying in Germany does not incur tuition fees also makes it very attractive to foreign students.

Since the UK announced its departure from the European Union (and abandoned the Erasmus student mobility program) and the United States under President Donald Trump chose to deter highly qualified students from the abroad, Germany has noted an increasing number of students. especially from India, China and countries of Spanish-speaking origin – with a lot in STEM subjects. In technical and natural science courses, around a quarter of the students have recently been foreigners, i.e. they obtained their university entrance qualification abroad and came to Germany for to study. After their exam, at least half of the graduates in this group remain in Germany and contribute in the long term to the added value of this country.

Critics of free higher education complain that the other half are leaving Germany again, creating a “brain drain” – as a result of which Germany bears the costs of education, while other countries absorb the associated revenues. Fortunately, the majority opinion, political and social, considers that the glass is half full, and a sober fiscal reflection validates this point of view.

Graduates who stay in Germany overcompensate not only their own training costs – through taxes and social security contributions – but also those of the migrant half. In addition, a not to be underestimated proportion of the “leaving” half is employed in foreign branches of German industrial companies and their work therefore benefits Germany very well. Likewise, one should not underestimate the (hopefully positive) image that foreign students who enjoyed their education in Germany convey in their home country or in the rest of the world.

Welcoming culture

As a successful measure to strengthen a welcoming culture, the portal ‘Do it in Germany‘has established itself. It was developed within the German Economic Institute, launched in 2012 and is now the central information portal of the federal government for all questions regarding immigration to Germany. The aim of the portal is to encourage professionals from all over the world to work in Germany. The foundation of this is a culture, in politics, society, administration and business, which invites people to stay in Germany.

“Make it in Germany” paints a modern and diverse picture and helps to present the Federal Republic as a friendly and cosmopolitan country, thus attracting qualified specialists. The portal provides comprehensive information on entry and visa procedures, family reunification, job search and daily life in Germany. In addition, training or study possibilities in Germany are explained.

Germany faces huge innovation challenges – from decarbonization, health protection and digitalization to technological competition with China. It is only through more innovation, and therefore cosmopolitanism and immigration, that these challenges can be overcome and at the same time well-being guaranteed.

In the current pandemic, hardly any foreign students and specialists come to Germany, which could soon have a negative impact on the performance of innovation. But here, the circle closes: two inventors from immigrant backgrounds, Şahin and Türeci, have developed an effective solution to the cause of this problem.

Oliver Koppel works as an innovation economist at the German Economic Institute in Cologne. His main research interests are patents, disruptive technologies and migration.

Enno Kohlisch works as an innovation economist at the German Economic Institute in Cologne. His main research interests are patents, STEM skills and regional development.


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