Harvard and MIT stake their claims for world economic dominance

The MIT dome.
The MIT dome.

It costs a pretty penny to attend Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but graduates usually get their money’s worth – and so does the world economy.

New studies released this week by both institutions reveal that their alumni have launched new businesses that generate millions of jobs and trillions in new wealth.

The Harvard Impact Study, released on Tuesday, claims that the school’s 375,000 living alumni have created over 146,000 for-profit and nonprofit ventures.  These have created over 20 million jobs and generate annual revenues of $3.9 trillion – greater than the gross domestic product of Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy.

“Harvard has had a surprisingly large entrepreneurial footprint in both the for-profit and not-profit sectors,” said Josh Lerner, the Harvard Business School professor who directed the new study, “and that footprint has been spread wide across the globe.”

Meanwhile, MIT’s impact report, released on Wednesday, says that its 130,000 alumni have created 30,200 active companies and 4.6 million jobs, and generate annual revenue of $1.9 trillion.  That’s a little more than the gross domestic product of Russia, the world’s tenth-largest economy.

Edward B. Roberts, the professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who led the study, said it’s a follow-up to a previous report he prepared in 2009.  Roberts said the latest data shows a major surge in MIT-spawned entrepreneurship.  “We’re seeing a more rapid rate of growth than we have ever seen before,” he said, “growth in the formation and startup of new companies by MIT alumni.”

Roberts said he was a little skeptical that Harvard appeared to have a greater entrepreneurial impact than MIT.  “The only other university in the world that is in the same ballpark as MIT is Stanford,” he said.

But Lerner wouldn’t be drawn into an MIT-Harvard shoving match.  He said the difference might be due to the far larger number of living Harvard alumni.  “We’re not doing impact per capita, which would probably play in MIT’s favor,” Lerner said.

The survey may also be skcwed a bit because it includes two massively successful companies founded by Harvard dropouts.  As a junior, Bill Gates  fled to Albuquerque in 1975 to found Microsoft Corp., which he later moved to Seattle.  And sophomore Mark Zuckerberg abandoned his studies in 2004 to launch Facebook Corp.

“These were the white whales, as it were,” said Lerner.

His research team directly contacted the founders of Microsoft and Facebook, to make sure they, or their personal assistants, responded to the survey.  “Mark Zuckerberg probably has better things to do than answer e-mails from Harvard,” said Lerner.

MIT can boast its share of giant successes as well.  Its alumni founded the giant microchip companies Intel Corp. and Qualcomm Inc., media company BuzzFeed and online data storage firm Dropbox Inc.

Harvard may hold first place in voluntary public service, an area that the MIT study does not address.  About 116,000 Harvard alumni – almost as many as the total number of MIT alums – engage in some kind of volunteer activity, usually related to education, religion, government, the arts or medicine.  In total, these alumni put in 1.6 million hours of volunteer work per month, the equivalent of nearly 6,600 full-time jobs.

Mass. Ave. smackdown

Harvard MIT
Ventures founded 146,429 30,200
Jobs created 20.4 million 4.6 million
Annual revenue $3.9 trillion $1.9 trillion
Comparably sized economy Germany Russia

SOURCES: Harvard Impact Study, Entrepreneurship and Innovation at MIT

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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