Latin America has a surplus of talent – and a shortage of innovation

In this Dec.18, 2014, photograph, scientist Christopher Kistler checks on experiments in bio-reactors in a laboratory at the Merck company facilities in Kenilworth, N.J. On June 27, 2017, Merck & Co. said a new type of cholesterol drug, in testing for many years, reduced heart attacks, deaths and other complications of heart disease in a huge late-stage study. Mel Evans AP


Amid the bloodshed in Venezuela, the corruption scandal in Brazil and the stream of bizarre statements coming out of President Trump’s Twitter feed, a very important news item has gone almost unnoticed in Latin America: A new study says the region is failing miserably in innovation.

The Global Innovation Index 2017, a ranking of 130 countries across the world, says that African, Eastern European and Southeast Asian countries are doing much better than Latin America when it comes to modernizing their economies and producing more sophisticated goods and services that help their economies grow faster.

The study is a collaborative effort by Cornell University’s College of Business, the European business school INSEAD and the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The annual ranking is based on dozens of measurements, including the number of new invention patents filed by each country, educational achievements and the ease of doing business.

The ranking does not list one single Latin American country among the 25 most innovative nations, despite the fact that three countries in the region — Brazil, Mexico and Argentina — are among the world’s 25 biggest economies. This year, Switzerland topped the ranking, followed by Sweden, the Netherlands, the United States and Great Britain. Among Latin American nations, Chile ranked 46th, Costa Rica 53rd, Mexico 58th, Colombia 65th, Uruguay 67th, Brazil 69th, Peru 70th, Argentina 76th, Ecuador 92nd, El Salvador 103rd and Bolivia 106th. What’s more worrisome for the region, the ranking also does not include a single Latin American country among the 17 developing countries that it describes as “innovation achievers,” or emerging nations that are advancing much more rapidly than their peers.

“The region’s innovation rankings have not significantly improved relative to other regions in recent years, and no country in Latin America and the Caribbean currently shows any innovation outperformance relative to its level of development,” the report says.

Why is it that a region with so many talented individuals cannot excel in innovation? Latin America is producing some of the world’s most creative and successful people, including soccer player Lionel Messi, Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, and the Venezuelan-born president of MIT — often ranked as the world’s No. 1 university — Rafael Reiff. Even the Vatican has a Latin American chief, Pope Francis.

And yet, the collective output of the region in patents of new inventions is pitiful. All Latin American and Caribbean countries together applied for about 1,400 patents with the WIPO last year, less than 10 percent of South Korea’s 15,560. Many economists say this is because Latin American countries have too many government regulations that stifle creative enterprises, and not enough venture capital to fund ideas from talented people.

While it takes more than a dozen legal steps to open a small business in your garage in many Latin American countries, you can get the necessary permits much more easily in the United States or Switzerland, they argue.

Others say the opposite: that Latin America needs more government intervention to produce more innovation. They argue that while highly innovative nations such as South Korea and Israel spend 4.2 percent of their gross domestic products on research and development, and the United States about 2.8 percent, the average in Latin America is at 0.5 percent.

My opinion: All of the above is true. And one could also add cultural factors to these explanations, such as the fact that many Latin American countries have little collective tolerance for individual failure, and little realization that successful innovations are in most cases the end result of a long list of failures.

But perhaps the key step to turn Latin America’s abundance of individual talent into a wave of productive creativity would be to recognize that the region has an innovation problem. Much like recovering alcoholics, the first step for Latin American countries to overcome their current innovation stagnation would be recognizing that they have a problem.

The fact that the Global Innovation Index 2017’s conclusions about Latin America got so little attention in the region is worrisome. It’s urgent for Latin America to stop being a region with a surplus of talent, and a shortage of innovation.

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