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How do the foreign-born perform in inventive activity? Evidence from Sweden


Using a new database that matches patent applications by Swedish residents with demographic information from 1985 to 2007, we examine differences in inventive performance by individuals of foreign and domestic origins, in terms of quantity (probability of patenting, total number of patents per inventor) and quality (forward citations, probability of grant) of patents. We further compare adult and child immigrants with their Swedish-born counterparts. Holding other variables constant, we find that the immigrants are generally less likely to patent than the Swedish-born. Nonetheless, the general group of immigrant inventors, including those who migrated as adults, performs as well as the native inventors and therefore seems more positively selected. Compared with the Swedish-born, the immigrants who migrated as children are disadvantaged in both quantity and quality of patents, which may be linked to a lack of Sweden-specific human capital. Whether education was received in Sweden does not seem to make a difference for the immigrants who migrated as adults. In summary, this study provides an initial impression of the inventive performance, contribution and challenges of distinct groups of immigrants who have differing characteristics and backgrounds.

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  1. The US immigrants originate mainly from South and East Asian countries as well as Latin America (Pew Research Center 2014). The origins of European immigrants vary substantially between countries (Eurostat 2011).

  2. This may be a result of geographic, linguistic and cultural proximity as well as established institutional regimes, such as those existing in the Nordic countries and the European Union/European Economic Area (EU/EEA), where free movement of member citizens is allowed between member countries, but movement of non-member citizens is restricted (Koslowski 1998). Citizens from other Nordic countries are allowed to live and work freely in Sweden because of the agreements signed between the Nordic countries in 1954 (Stalker 2002). Free mobility has also been allowed for individuals from other EU/EEA countries, since the EEA treaty in 1994 and Sweden’s entry into the EU in 1995 (Westin 2000; Cerna 2009).

  3. From 1960 to 2013, the proportion of foreign-born residents increased from 4.0 to 15.9 % (Statistics Sweden 2014a).

  4. The Swedish social security number is a unique identification number for each resident in Sweden, including foreigners with a valid residence permit for at least 1 year. Therefore, foreign-born inventors who reside in Sweden for less than 1 year have no Swedish SSN.

  5. The comparison of inventive performance between the immigrants and natives in our study sometimes differs from earlier studies. We compare the foreign-born (first-generation immigrants) and the native-born, the same type of comparison as in Hunt and Gauthier-Loiselle (2010), Hunt (2011) and No and Walsh (2010). In studies by e.g. Kerr (2008a) and Nathan (2014b), the comparison is made between the ethnic inventor communities following name-based approaches, where minority ethnic inventors also include second- and third-generation immigrants.

  6. The Gini index measures the income distribution of a nation’s residents. A Gini index of 0 represents perfect equality, while an index of 100 implies perfect inequality.

  7. Sweden’s highest marginal rates of personal income tax ranked fourth (after Aruba, Curaçao and Denmark) and second (after Aruba) in the world in 2005 and 2010, respectively (see KPMG 2012).

  8. For example, among the Swedish population aged 25 to 64 in 2006, 13 % of people engaged in science and technology in Sweden were foreign-born, compared with 16 % of total immigrants in the Swedish population (OECD 2008; Statistics Sweden 2014a; b).

  9. Sweden introduced undergraduate and master’s programs tuition fees for students from non-EU/EEA/Switzerland countries in August 2011.

  10. In our data, 80 % of the identified foreign-born inventors have a long or PhD education and 20 % have a short education (see definitions of ‘education level’ in Table 3). The corresponding figures for the identified Swedish-born inventors are 70 and 30 %, respectively.

  11. Among the general population of immigrants in Sweden in 2000, 10.7 % were younger than 18. The corresponding figures were 9.1 % in 2007 and 9.9 % in 2013 (Statistics Sweden 2014b).

  12. Data on the date of immigration on the individual level is only available from 1961 onwards. For those born before 1961, our data on date of immigration may be not their first entry date. To ensure that the date of immigration is the first entry date for immigrants, which can be used to identify their age of immigration correctly, we only keep immigrants who were born in or after 1961 when we study those who migrated as children and adults in model 4 and model 5.

  13. This material uses patents and inventors from the April 2010 version, later supplemented and updated with information from the April 2011 version.

  14. Patent–inventor combination means that each inventor in a patent is listed as one observation with demographic and patent information for that application year. For example, if one patent has three inventors, then there are three observations of patent–inventor combinations. If one inventor contributed to N patents, then he/she is shown N times and contributes to N observations.

  15. The commercial company holds all addresses of Swedish residents for the past 3 years. As the establishment of our database was in 2011, only the inventors whose addresses in the patent file are the same as they had between 2009 and 2011 can be matched.

  16. In the 1990 directory, the whole Swedish population was included with their addresses and birth dates. The full SSN was derived by checking birth date in accordance with existing matches and by contact with the Swedish tax authority.

  17. Statistics Sweden has very detailed information that includes demographic and education information for all residents in Sweden from 1985 onwards. Any resident living in Sweden for more than 1 year has an SSN. If the SSN in Statistics Sweden can be matched with the SSN identified by the commercial company for the inventors, then the inventor’s detailed personal information can be matched.

  18. Inventors younger than 25 are excluded from our data as their contribution to Swedish invention is negligible. Those aged 16 to 24 only contributed 0.29 % of identified patent–inventor combinations that were contributed by inventors aged 16 to 64, which is less than the contribution by the inventors at any other single age. For example, the corresponding figure for the inventors aged 25 is 0.35 %.

  19. Please see Appendix 1 for the check of unidentified inventors.

  20. Fractional count means that each co-patent is counted as a fraction, depending on how many inventors contributed to one patent. For example, if one patent has three co-inventors, then each inventor is attributed one third of the patent.

  21. North America includes Central America and the Caribbean countries. According to data from Statistics Sweden, 66.3 % of immigrants from North America were from Canada or the USA in 2000 (59.8 % in 2008).

  22. Figure 2 shows a temporary decline in the share of immigrants’ inventions in 1993 and 1994 and an increase in 1995, after which the trend is steadier. There may be several reasons for this dip and rebound. For example, (a) the economic depression in Sweden at the beginning of the 1990s may have affected immigrants differently (Ekberg 2011), (b) Sweden’s entry into the EU may also have led to an increased inflow of skilled migrants from other EU countries from 1995 onwards and (c) labor migration from non-EU/EEA countries tends to be strictly selected in the form of experts and key personnel, who are more likely to participate in invention (Ministry of Justice 2001; Cerna 2009).

  23. Grade data are complete between 1973 and 1996 but unobserved before 1973 and not comparable with earlier years from 1997 on.

  24. We cannot find other higher-quality information to indicate whether immigrants were raised in Sweden for the entire population in the whole examined period. We believe that it is reasonable to assume that those attending high school in Sweden are likely to have been raised in Sweden. Of all inventors in Sweden, 61.5 % graduated before the age of 19 and 93.5 % before the age of 20. The corresponding figures for foreign-born inventors are 56.2 and 86.4 % (please see footnote 12 for the reason why we do not use data here, such as the date of immigration, to identify whether immigrants have been raised in Sweden or not).

  25. Individual ability could also correlate with the choice to migrate, which may lead to a self-selection problem. To test for endogeneity caused by self-selection, we use the variable child_migrant (migration occurred as children) as the instrument variable for foreign-born (omit: Swedish-born), a strategy similar to the one used by Franzoni et al. (2014). According to the ivpoisson control function model and generalized method of moments (GMM) on total number of patents and NFC to patents (see dependent variables below), we find that the variable foreign-born is not endogenous.

  26. Of those born in or after 1961, 71.4 % of foreign-born inventors and 69.9 % (2000) and 71.7 % (2007) of all immigrants migrated as adults.

  27. Among the identified inventors born in or after 1961, we find that 97.2 % of the Swedish-born and 93.5 % of immigrants who migrated as children have received an education in Sweden at secondary school or higher levels according to their study records in Statistics Sweden; 26.2 % of immigrants who migrated as adults obtained an education in Sweden.

  28. Among the identified inventors, only 3.8 % have an education at primary school level. Of these, 91.5 % are Swedish-born and 8.5 % are foreign-born. The distribution is similar for inventors who have an education level equal to or higher than secondary school, 89.4 and 10.6 %, respectively. Only 3.6 % of the identified inventors are unemployed. Of these, 75.9 % are Swedish-born and 24.1 % are foreign-born. The distribution among employed inventors is 89.6 and 10.4 %, respectively.

  29. When the dependent variable is a dummy variable (probability of patenting and probability of a patent application being granted) and both probit and logit model are applicable, or when the dependent variable is count data (total number of patents per inventor and NFC received by each patent) and any of the negative binomial, Poisson, and zero inflow models are applicable, we always choose the model which has the higher log pseudolikelihood, smaller Akaike’s information criterion (AIC) and Schwarz’s Bayesian information criterion (BIC) after comparison.

  30. This method is appropriate because it takes into account that the probability of patenting for an individual is a series of correlated binary outcomes, in which a person who patented previously is also more likely to patent later on.

  31. Roughly, number of countries of patent protection (see Martínez 2011).

  32. Three main criteria must be fulfilled during the search and examination procedures for a patent application to be granted: the invention must (a) be novel in terms of the published state of the art (new), (b) be industrially applicable (useful) and (c) exhibit a sufficient ‘inventive step’ (be non-obvious).

  33. As our data were collected in early 2011, the information on grants in 2011 is incomplete. There are only 171 observations in 2011 compared with 2216 in 2010.

  34. Compared with model 2.3, the significance of the results in model 4 and model 5 for immigrants who were born in or after 1961 and raised in Sweden is different. The reason is that in model 2.3, we only include individuals with a recorded high school GPA between 1973 and 1996, while in models 4 and 5, we also include individuals without a recorded GPA.

  35. H-1B is a type of temporary work visa in the USA given to people in specialty occupations with at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent).

  36. See Nathan (2014b) for a detailed introduction to the Onomap system.


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The authors would like to thank the anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions. We are grateful to Lennart Schön, Ron Boschma, Taehyun Jung, Cristina Chaminade, Torben Schubert, Martin Andersson, Jonas Gabrielsson, Josef Taalbi, Ju Liu and other colleagues who have contributed comments and suggestions for this paper in seminars at CIRCLE and the Department of Economic History, Lund University. We also appreciate the comments from Jacob Rubæk Holm, Pooyan Khashabi and Francesco Lissoni made at the DRUID Academy Conference 2013 and the summer school ‘Knowledge dynamics, industry evolution, economic development’ in Nice in 2013 and from Siri Terjesen. We thank Niclas Lavesson, Sten Dieden and John Källström for data assistance and Jaya Reddy for language checking. In addition, we truly appreciate the very constructive comments from the three anonymous reviewers appointed by the Journal of Population Economics. We gratefully acknowledge the funding support from the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems (VINNOVA) Grant No. 85958435056 and from the Swedish Research Council Grant No. 421-2011-2068.

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Correspondence to Yannu Zheng.

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Responsible editor: Klaus F. Zimmermann



Appendix 1. Selection bias of unidentified inventors

As 20.7 % of the patent–inventor combinations are still unidentified, one might suspect it to be more difficult to find the SSN of foreign-born inventors in Sweden, as they are likely to be more mobile and less ‘sticky’ in the registers. Thus, we initially looked for sample selection bias as to whether foreign-born inventors might be overrepresented among unidentified inventors by randomly choosing 15 % of unidentified combinations per year from 1985 to 2007. Eyeballing inventors’ names, we found 17.6 % to have names that could be characterized as ‘foreign’, which is slightly higher than the share of inventions by identified foreign-born inventors (11.5 %). This may be because some foreign-born inventors had resided in Sweden for less than 1 year and thus had no Swedish SSN. Also, our classification of names as foreign may be overstated, as many individuals (including inventors) are second- and third-generation immigrants (see Fig. 3 in Appendix 3) who are likely to have foreign names but were born in Sweden.

We also used the Onomap softwareFootnote 36 to classify inventors’ surname–forename combinations as Swedish or non-Swedish. Among the unidentified inventors, Onomap matched 96.9 % of the names (3.1 % are unclassified), and among the matched names, 51.2 % were found to be Swedish. To examine whether Onomap’s result was robust or not, we also used Onomap to classify identified inventors. Among the identified inventors, Onomap matched 96.2 % of the names, of which 49.0 % were Swedish names. This proportion is much lower than that of the identified Swedish-born inventors in terms of our data (89.1 %). Several reasons may account for it. First, we used ‘UK’ as the origin country of our data, as the other countries in Onomap are not currently working. Thus, we found quite a high percentage of inventors with English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish names (14.4 and 11.6 % among unidentified and identified inventors, respectively). Second, many Swedes have names popular in other Nordic countries and Germany, which makes it difficult to differentiate origin among these countries. Third, as mentioned above, many Swedish natives have foreign names. Nevertheless, Onomap shows that among identified and unidentified samples, the proportion of inventors with Swedish names is roughly similar.

Both the eyeballing of inventors’ names and the Onomap test cannot directly identify the share of ‘foreign-born inventors’ as in our identified data, since they only show the share of minority ethnic inventors, which can also capture second- and third-generation immigrants. Nevertheless, both tests show that it seems unlikely that there is any large sample selection issue in our data with respect to foreign participation.

Appendix 2. Sector of work by SNI 1992

  1. 1.

    Agriculture, hunting, forestry and hunting

    A Agriculture, hunting and forestry: 01–02

    B Fishing: 05

  2. 2.


    C Mining and quarrying: 10–14

    D Manufacturing: 15–37

    E Electricity, gas and water supply: 40–41

    F Construction: 45

  3. 3.

    Private service

    G Wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles, motorcycles and personal and household goods: 50–52

    H Hotels and restaurants: 55

    I Transport, storage and communication: 60–64

    J Financial intermediation: 65–67

    K Real estate, renting and business activities: 70–74

    P Activities of households: 95

  4. 4.

    Public service

    L Public administration and defence; compulsory social security: 75

    M Education: 80

    N Health and social work: 85

    O Other community, social and personal service activities: 90–93

    Q Extra-territorial organizations and bodies: 99

Appendix 3

Fig. 3
figure 3

Share of foreign-born, Swedish-born with one foreign-born parent and Swedish-born with two foreign-born parents among Swedish population aged 25–64, for each year 2002–2013. Source: Statistics Sweden

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Zheng, Y., Ejermo, O. How do the foreign-born perform in inventive activity? Evidence from Sweden. J Popul Econ 28, 659–695 (2015).

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  • Immigrants
  • Inventors
  • Children
  • Adults

JEL classification

  • J15
  • J24
  • N30
  • O31