Sprawling across 366,000 square feet, Station F in France is the biggest startup incubator in the world.
But does that mean it’s the best?
“I think it might be a little early to judge,” says Director Roxanne Varza, who’s been running the Parisian innovation hub for 10 months now.
With 1,000 desks, chessboards and multimillion-dollar art installations, the new French space looks more like a university campus than the shiny corporate or hipster coworking spaces so many young European businesses grow out of today.
Already, it’s been home to over 1,000 startups, entrepreneurs who pay around €195 ($235) per desk per month—a fee Varza claims is around half the price of other desks in Paris.
And although Station F has been backed by billionaire Xavier Niel, who invested €250 million ($300 million), these startups are the campus’s main source of revenue, alongside rental fees from 32 venture capital firms.
“Today our business is costing roughly €8 million [$9.7 million] to run per year, and we are looking at breaking even this year,” Varza notes.
The cost to get a tiny place in the apple of Paris’s eye is a price worth paying, says the businesswoman who previously oversaw Microsoft’s startups interests in France.
“The number one feedback we heard from entrepreneurs regarding what they were looking for, was feedback from other entrepreneurs,” says Varza.
“With the volume of startups we have, any problem they have, there’s someone sitting 5 feet away from them that has encountered the exact same problem and they can help.”
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Quite understandably, France was jubilant when Station F opened its doors last June, but the launch hasn’t exactly been hiccup-free. Even now, the hub is still very much “in beta” says Varza, and is constantly evolving with the cohorts who attend its 31 different programs.
“When we actually opened the building, construction was finished, but there were a lot of things that weren’t ready,” she recalls.
Flooding caused delays, the team fell behind schedule, and visitors experienced problems with their access badges and room-booking systems.
And yet these teething problems haven’t stopped sprightly businesses from blossoming within its walls.
One early success was recast.ai, a Parisian chatbot business. This was acquired by SAP from the Microsoft AI Factory program in January.
Hundreds more startups are also now raising funds behind closed doors, says Varza, largely because Station F has helped to put them on the map.
It seems like every other month the hub has another high-profile visitor, with past guests including everyone from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, and politicians like the president of Argentina, and the prime minister of Norway.
“Station F is becoming a destination now,” says Varza. “When people come to France or to Europe, they now come to Station F.”
“People are really paying attention to our startups … that’s giving them a huge visibility and credibility that they didn’t have previously.”
Creating a new startup culture
With over a decade of experience in the French tech sector one of Varza’s biggest missions at Station F is to shape startup culture for the better, both in France, and beyond.
By some counts, 60% of young people living in France want to build their own business, Varza points out, and the country is already a leader Europe in terms of investment volume, sitting ahead of both the U.K. and Germany.
Yet the country’s most innovative players had previously been “small and scattered,” and failed to reflect France’s diverse population.
“We need to make sure we’re making innovations that matter, and the only way we’re going to do that is if we have all kinds of people working on all kinds of projects,” Varza says. “If everybody on campus had the same M.B.A. from the same type of school, they’d all be working on the same kind of projects and that would not be as interesting.”
It’s this that’s driven her to make innovation accessible through all kinds of programs.
DigiTal, for example, is a business on Station F’s Fighters program—a stream that is dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs from underprivileged backgrounds. Not long ago, its founder Tally Fofana was serving two years in jail for stealing cars (when his three-year-old son came to visit, the boy found it so traumatic he would throw up).
Now Fofana’s team is developing antitheft software based on his knowledge of security vulnerabilities.
“They’re working with a number of companies and are raising funding with some heavyweight investors in France,” says Varza of the unusual startup.
Another female-founded business, Euveka, has been on Station F’s luxury tech program run with LVMH. Founder Audrey-Laure Bergenthal builds connected robot mannequins to help in designing of clothes (and caused quite a stir at this year’s CES).
“She either sells the robots or leases them to different organizations,” Varza says. “Business is really starting to pick up.”
Even Varza’s expectations of startup life have been challenged for the better. She had some preconceptions, for example, that startups would want to work nonstop, at night and even on the weekend.
“There are some, but it’s not the majority,” says Varza. “The majority actually tend to work normal working days.”
Roughly a third of Station F is still under construction as its extension projects are completed.
But next month will see the opening of a vast restaurant space, the first Station F building that will be fully open to the public. This can seat 1,000 visitors and has four kitchens (one of which is open 24/7) and a bar. “This is quite unique in Paris,” says Varza.
In the autumn the director will also oversee the start of a huge housing project, intended to be akin to student halls. Located just a 10-minutes’ bike-ride away, this will be able to house 600 of the entrepreneurs who want to live and work together.
“Hopefully they won’t get sick of each other,” Varza laughs.
And beyond that? “I have been approached by so many countries that want to launch a Station B in Brazil or a Station T in Tunisia,” she adds.
Varza might not feel comfortable saying Station F is “the best” yet. But if countries succeed in calling for their own franchise, that might not be the case for long.