Who would have believed it? The country whose favourite phrases begin with “Mais le problème est...” or “C’est compliqué” has managed to open the biggest startup campus in the world. And not only that, after only a few months of opening its doors, Station F in Paris appears to be roaring success.
France, despite being the originator of the word ‘entrepreneur’ (contrary to George Bush Jr’s claim), previously had a reputation amongst international entrepreneurs as being a bit of a tricky customer when it came to trying to set up a company or launch anything that didn’t fit into any of its business pigeon holes. Business people with fresh, untried ideas often found themselves in a Kafkaesque nightmare of being passed from one tax office to another while the bureaucrats figured out how to squeeze them into a traditional role just to tick the correct boxes on the paperwork. (See our story of how one US entrepreneur went through the mill trying to get his original business idea off the ground in France.)
But the last few years has seen a significant change in the country’s outlook towards innovative startups and the tech industry in particular. Suddenly groups of tech experts and bustling startup hubs began to pop up all over Paris, bringing with it changes (albeit slow and convoluted) in the government’s business system. Riding on the back of the capital’s new-found status as Europe’s go-to city for startups, the French entrepreneur Xavier Niel decided to back a plan for an ambitious 34,000 square metre campus in the old Halle Freyssinet building in the 13th district of Paris to cater for this new generation of business minds.
The total invested was a jaw-dropping 250 million euros with funds coming from big hitters such as Leroy Merlin, Ventech and Amazon. Even the ex-president François Hollande - who called Station F “a magical place, capable of inventing the solidarity and economy of tomorrow” - got in on the act by locating the headquarters of his Fondation La France S’Engage (catchy title Frankie!) at the campus.
The French naysayers, opposed to change and disbelieving such a grand enterprise could actually come to be built, were surprised to see that in less than three years, the derelict site was transformed by architects Wilmotte & Associés into an extraordinary open plan space that houses 3,000 work stations, an auditorium, event spaces, meeting areas, cafés and relaxation zones. And as another snub to those who thought the French were old-fashioned misogynists, a female was named as the director of Station F. Roxanne Varza (pictured) who had previously led Microsoft Ventures and TechCrunch France, enthusiastically took charge of the project and made sure every detail of the campus lived up to the vision.
Only a slight blip in the schedule in the form of a flood set the project back and delayed the opening by three months, but the campus was finally inaugurated at the end of June 2017 by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the new business-friendly president Emmanuel Macron (currently courting controversy as he tries desperately to overhaul the set-in-stone French employment system.)
Since Station F’s launch, over 11,000 visitors have been through the doors. All 3,000 work stations have been reserved for use, 700 people have signed up for the Founders Program, 24 partner startups are up and running (including Facebook’s first startup incubator Startup Garage) and a new Fighters Program has been launched which helps underprivileged or refugee entrepreneurs who need extra help to get their foot on the ladder.
Over 20 different events per week have been organised at Station F and the next big event will be held on October 25th – 26th. The Techfugees Global Summit brings together a community of technologists, investors, engineers and entrepreneurs to help build solutions for, and with, refugees.
With events such as these, entrepreneurs from as far afield as Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Australia have come to see what all the fuss is about. As Catherine Finedor from USA startup Torq Labs, who became one of the members of the Founders Program, said: “I, along with my team, are very excited to be here. It’s a great opportunity to travel across the ocean and meet new people, learn a new language and explore different ways to improve our products. I am completely blown away by how big it is, how clean and how organised and well equipped it is. The desks are perfect for close communication and there’s a lot of different companies here that are perfect for networking.”
But if you thought launching Station F was ambitious enough, Xavier Neil and Roxanne Varza are now planning to launch a housing development in 2018 which will have room for 600 beds for entrepreneurs who need a place to stay while launching their businesses.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on Station F and hope that it continues to shrug off France’s bad old business reputation and replaces it with a bright, shiny innovative one.
For more information on how to start your business in France, or how to register a business address in France, open a French bank account or get French tax advice, call us on 0033 (0) 1 53 57 49 10 or email us through our contact page and we’ll be happy to help.