France’s reputation for being anti-entrepreneur and pro-big labor was never entirely deserved, but the times are definitely changing. The massive strikes that used to fill the streets and squares with demonstrators and knock out public transport and other services, sometimes for a month at a time, are a thing of the past. And “entrepreneur” – a French word, after all – has a new glow around it these days, especially since last year’s election of President Emmanuel Macron, who is implementing new rules to make the labor market more flexible. Not long after the election, a French entrepreneur par excellence, the self-made billionaire Xavier Niel, founder of Internet service provider and mobile operator Free, took another step toward encouraging entrepreneurship by opening the world’s largest startup incubator, Station F, in Paris.
Modeled on a US-style university campus, Station F is located in a converted rail-freight depot in the 13th arrondissement, its cavernous interior beautifully remodeled by Wilmotte and Associates with glass-box offices and meeting rooms suspended on the balcony level around the massive open space.
Artworks and plenty of lounge areas furnished with colorful armchairs and equipped with foosball and billiard tables might lead you to think you are at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, but no, this is Paris.
And business comes first at Station F. When I paid a visit recently to attend an interview of Niel and Station F director Roxanne Varza, organized by the Anglo-American Press Association, I didn’t see anyone playing games, but there were plenty of things going on.
Varza explained that Station F is an entire “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” designed to provide budding companies with everything they need to support their activities on site, from representatives of public authorities for assistance with visas to banks and prototyping equipment. Some 30 venture capitalists are members of the organization and meet regularly with the startups, and Facebook has its own “Startup Garage,” hosting 15 startups, in the building. “We have done everything possible to put everything they need here,” she says.
The 34,000 square-meter space, open 24/7, has some 3,000 startup desks for 26 international startup programs, a makerspace, eight event spaces, a restaurant, a cafe, a bar and four kitchens. Separate housing will soon provide a hundred shared apartments
The carefully screened startups so far installed in the building are working in a wide range of fields, from fashion to medical technologies, and come from around the world.
For Niel, the most important change introduced by President Macron has been “to completely change the image of France outside its borders,” with a more youthful, pro-startup, pro-entrepreneur stance. “France itself has not changed,” he added, just the way it is perceived by the outside world thanks to Macrons’ youthful, dynamic image. He pointed out that former President François Hollande, whose image was less than dynamic, was actually supportive of the development of Station F and continues to go there every week to give a talk to the startups.
If you’d like to visit Station F, reserve a tour here.