Located in a former freight station, in an industrial corner of central Paris, sits what is soon to become the world’s biggest startup campus. When completed early next year, the huge space will be home to around a thousand startups, with a quarter of a billion euros invested by one of France’s best-known and mellifluous entrepreneurs.
Just don’t call Station F, one of Europe’s most ambitious current projects, an incubator.
“When people talk about an incubator they’re thinking of a specific program, and that reduces it to a desk,” Station F’s director Roxanne Varza told Red Herring. “We’ve got a lot more, and our space will house other programs. It’s a combination of so many things that we think campus reflects a lot better what we’re doing.”
Station F, known until June as 1000 Startups, is the brainchild of Xavier Niel, a telecommunications magnate known chiefly for his founding of Free, France’s second-largest ISP, which revolutionized broadband packages in the early 2000s. Last year he saw a chance for another big move, and called Varza.
France’s tech sector is in ruder health than you may think: it has the most funding rounds of any European nation (Britain receives more funds in total), and its public bank, BPI, has made the most investments of any group on the continent.
But France’s tech ecosystem is often diffuse and decentralized. Niel, Varza said, wanted to hone this large number of “small, local actors…we need somewhere people can see them.”
Varza, who had previously worked at Microsoft Ventures and TechCrunch, took the offer to lead the characteristically ambitious project. Now she heads a team of nine who will have Station F, in a striking and unique setting, ready for business at the beginning of next year.
“There’s a lot going on here,” she said. “One part will be a coffee shop, events space and meeting rooms. Another, which is around 1/3 of the building, will be entirely startups, with 3,000 desks. The last part is completely public and open 24/7. It’s a restaurant space with four different kitchens and a bar.”
Thankfully the Halle Freyssinet, where Station F will be, can cope with the demand. The 34,000sq m building was constructed in 1929 by Eugene Freyssinet, a civil engineer famed for his mastery of concrete. The fact that it is in a corner of the capital that city officials are eager to renovate, has made the job a whole lot easier, Varza admitted.
Station F will also comprise a housing project, @Home, with 15,000sq m of space at a print works a little further out of town. Its apartments, able to hold six people each, will accommodate 600 when they open around the beginning of 2018.
“It’s such a delicate infrastructure of concrete: the architects are paying tribute to the origins of the building while renovating it,” said head of communications Rachel Vanier. “Ambition is one of the values that we go with a lot. We aim to help entrepreneurs fulfill their ambitions, and create their own bigger ambitions.”
Station F will also host a variety of events, not just in the tech sphere but also in the arts and other sectors. But the primarily goal is to build a hub for Paris’, and France’s, flourishing startup ecosystem: somewhere entrepreneurs can meet, greet and get ideas off the ground.
“It’s about putting startups at the centre of the economy,” said Varza, “and society.”