France wants to be Europe’s start-up hub with world’s largest incubator

The 34,000-square-metre start-up incubator, called Station F, occupies a 1920 railway depot on the banks of the Seine. It will be home for 1,000 fledgling companies and try to break perception of the country being anti-business

Many said it would never work. Others said the guy is on his own. Still others said there was no business model, no investors and no clients. And in the end we got there

Emmanuel Macron
President, France

French president Emmanuel Macron has inaugurated the world’s largest start-up incubator in central Paris, taking the city a step closer to fulfilling its ambition of becoming Europe’s technology capital. The 34,000-square-metre facility named Station F occupies a 1920 railway depot on the banks of the Seine river. It is designed to provide a home for 1,000 fledgling companies, which will be mentored by digital giants, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and French gaming company Ubisoft.

Addressing around 2,000 investors, entrepreneurs, IT students and partners gathered in one of three giant halls that make up the business incubator, Macron compared his stunning three-year journey from political outsider to president to that of a start-up founder. “Many said it would never work. Others said the guy is on his own. Still others said there was no business model, no investors and no clients. And in the end we got there. What unites those gathered here … is that you do not want others to write your story and that of your country in your place. That is what it means to be an entrepreneur,” he said to loud cheers.

The hub is being bankrolled by billionaire Xavier Niel, who revolutionised the French internet and mobile market with his low-cost free service and is now on a crusade to get young French people into employment through technology. The concrete-and-glass complex situated next to the national library in the 13th district will be a “very visible place that creates a strong image for Paris”, Niel said ahead of the launch. “The idea is to create a place that acts like a beacon and helps others,” he added.

The space has been designed to create the feel of an American college campus, with entrepreneurs paying 195 euros ($221) a month for one of 3,000 workstations in a venue that also includes three bars, an auditorium, a restaurant and meeting spaces. Several leading French universities and venture capital funds will also provide on-site advice.

Station F is the biggest of around 40 incubators that have sprung up in Paris, which is competing with London and Berlin for the title of Europe’s technology leader. “This is our Silicon Valley,” Gaelle Madelin-Girardeau, co-founder of an e-learning platform for children, Cood, whose company won one of the coveted spots in Station F said. “It is really good in France to see this energy. We have not had that in a long time,” the 35-year-old former Google executive said.

Start-up nation

France has long battled a perception of being unfriendly to business, held back by high labour costs and red tape. Macron, who has announced a 10 billion euro ($ 11.3 billion) fund for innovation, has said he wants France “to be a nation that thinks and moves like a start-up”.

Addressing the launch, Mayor Anne Hidalgo said that the hub showed Paris was not a “museum-like city”, stuck in time.

Niel, who launched a no-fees school for computer coders in Paris in 2013 that broke the educational mould, has invested 250 million euros in Station F. He envisages a day when “people from the world over will come to create their start-up in Paris”. Currently, London has the lead in luring international talent. The French are hoping the pendulum will swing across the Channel when Britain leaves the EU.

French bashing no more

Among the French start-ups that have received huge capital injections from the US investors are the car-sharing BlaBlaCar – valued at over one billion euros, making it what is known in the tech sector as a “unicorn” – and online advertising firm Criteo.

“The dinner table conversation has gone from French bashing to French tech,” according to 29-year-old Remy Rousset, another future Station F occupant, who heads a start-up that advises consumers on managing their electricity bills.

An engineer by training, Rousset said that the business climate for entrepreneurs in France had changed “enormously” since he graduated in 2009. “Back then many dreamed of one thing: going abroad and working for a big group. Now, when you talk to students they want to stay in France and join a start-up,” he added.

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