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How Station F Transformed Paris Into the Start-Up Capital of France

by Rick Anderson

The southeast district of Paris is not exactly glamorous—this Asian quarter is known for its delicious fare, but the barren streets are lined with unaesthetic 1980s apartment towers. Welcome to the 13th arrondissement, which, located in the city's southeastern corner, didn’t garner much attention until recently. And much of that success is due to the Station F start-up hub, a space that has transformed a former railway shed into a start-up incubator for 3,000 entrepreneurs and businesses, including super household names such as Facebook, L'Oréal, and Microsoft.

A view inside of Station F, a start-up space that contains more than 3,000 desks for innovators to work from.

Aggressively passing over London as the start-up hub of Europe, Parisian tech mogul Xavier Niel (known as the Richard Branson of France) spent $300 million to help this start-up hub thrive. Due to the Brexit effect, startups are looking to stay within the European Union for more opportunities, just as France is gaining steam as a "start-up nation." French president Emmanuel Macron set up an investment fund of $12 billion for tech start-ups, and last year, France overtook the U.K. as having the highest number of venture-capital-backed businesses, 688 in total.

During the summer of 2017, France's President Macron (right) shakes hands with staff during the inauguration of Station F, one of the world's largest start-up incubators.

Inside the 36,000-square-foot space, millennials gaze down at their laptops while large sculptures by Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei flank the chatty lobby. Station F boasts more than 3,000 desks, 26 startup programs, and “a rooftop tennis court (just kidding),” reads its website, but that might not be far off—it's introducing a new co-living space for entrepreneurs where 600 people will share 100 apartments, launching in 2019.

A rendering shows the residential buildings that will be completed near Station F in 2019.

Roxanne Varza, who hails from Palo Alto, moved to Paris in 2009 and stayed to help develop the city’s tech scene. Today, she is Station F’s director. “We have seen the number of rounds of funding in Paris skyrocket in the past few years, and it’s now number one in Europe,” she said. “The tech scene in Paris has a great talent pool, and some very successful companies, many British entrepreneurs, tell us they’ve made the move to France, rather than the U.K., as a result of Brexit.”

A rendering shows a new restaurant that will be opened in Paris's new start-up hub, Station F.

Due to this fact, there has been a surge in real-estate value in the 13th arrondissement, which was previously one of the cheapest neighborhood to buy a home. This working class area was given the nickname “faubourg souffrant” (the ailing suburb), for its shabby social housing and retro apartment towers. Now the area is enviable for its rise in interest rates, according to Paris real-estate agent Gilles Colzy. The clientele is getting younger and investors are snapping up small apartments to rent to newcomers.

Another interior view of Station F shows a common area with modern chairs and ample plant life.

According to Varza, Station F has helped boost the neighborhood, but the Paris start-up scene didn’t begin here. “I'd say we have had a catalyst effect; there were already great start-ups, lots of funding available, and great talent before we opened, but we brought a lot of international attention and really took things to the next level,” Varza says.

Station F is already making an impact on a community level, and Varza’s favorite incubator is the Fighters program for entrepreneurs from underprivileged backgrounds. “We have some really exceptional and unusual profiles in that program, including a former prisoner,” she said.

The space includes works of art by such renowned names as Jeff Koons (pictured) and Ai Weiwei.

Though still in its infancy, Station F—which celebrates its one-year anniversary in June—still has time to grow. “In terms of the building, there are lots of great little surprises on campus, like the Lego wall and the graffiti trains,” she said. “But the part I love the most is the fact that it’s a historical monument founded by a factory owner, so it ties in to our entrepreneurial spirit.”

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