What’s happening at the world’s biggest start-up campus?

26 Apr 2018

Roxanne Varza, director, Station F. Image: Luke Maxwell

This summer will mark Station F’s first full year in operation. Elaine Burke caught up with Roxanne Varza to find out how start-up life at the 34,000 sq m start-up campus has been.

Station F, an ambitious project situated in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, opened its doors between Rue Ada Lovelace and Parvis Alan Turing in July 2017. The concept from Xavier Niel – the French billionaire with a penchant for large-scale projects, it seems – was for a start-up campus of unprecedented scale.

At 34,000 sq m, Station F has enough room to house the Eiffel Tower laying down. All this real estate is for start-ups, entrepreneurs, makers and founders to meet, mingle and incubate ideas. There are thousands of hotdesks, more than 60 meeting rooms and eight event spaces, while 26 start-up programmes populate the space with successful applicants.

‘We didn’t want to be “just” a big campus, but actually do something meaningful. That’s why our goal is really to make entrepreneurship more accessible and to make sure that our campus features a variety of different entrepreneurs and projects’

I met with Station F director Roxanne Varza last year before the space was opened for business. The much-anticipated opening was on the horizon and the call had gone out for applicants to Station F’s own early-stage accelerator at the base (others are hosted by Facebook, Zendesk, French e-commerce powerhouse Vente-privee and more). Interest in being first on the scene was huge, with Varza saying they received several hundred applications from start-ups all over the world in just 24 hours.

“We were actually very pleased to see all the excitement and enthusiasm that this project has generated from around the world,” she told me, one year on from our original interview, when I reached out to see how the first months at Station F had gone.

“I always tell people this first year has really been a beta test for us. But it’s not going too badly!” she said.

Big demand on campus

The official year-one report of figures and milestones hit by Station F will come this summer, but achievements so far include the acquisition of one of its start-ups after just six months. Recast.ai develops chatbots for customer support and joined Station F via Microsoft’s AI Factory accelerator. The company announced it had been snapped up by SAP for an undisclosed sum in January.

Also, despite its colossal size, the Station F campus has been filled and there is a waiting list of new partners and start-up programmes wanting to join.

“We are also building a VC community,” Varza informed me. “We currently have just over 30 funds that are part of it.” And Varza is confident she’ll see Station F hit capacity on that tally, too.

Unsurprisingly, then, that Varza said the biggest challenge for the hub so far has been the immense demand for participation and even visits to the ‘world’s biggest start-up campus’. Since opening, Station F has welcomed many from tech’s A-list: Evan Spiegel (Snap), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Sam Altman (Y Combinator), Min Fan (Ctrip) and Ron Conway (SV Angel). It has also hosted a number of world leaders and ambassadors including the president of Argentina, the prince of Monaco, the duke and duchess of Luxembourg, the prime minister of Norway, the mayor of London and, naturally, French president Emmanuel Macron.

“We’ve actually had to hire someone specifically to run visits,” she revealed. “The demand continues to increase and we receive several thousand people per month – and we still refuse tons of people.”

Start-up crushes

When we spoke in 2017, I asked Varza about her current ‘start-up crushes’. Then, she was excited by Agricool, a French start-up that uses shipping containers to grow fruit and veg in urban locations, and she was looking forward to learning more about Lilium, the German aviation start-up developing an all-electric flying taxi.

Since that conversation, Agricool has raised $9.1m and Lilium has done 10 times as well with a $90m Series B round so, naturally, I wanted to know who Varza was keeping her eye on in 2018.

First on her list is Wakatoon from the Station F Founders Program for early-stage start-ups. The French company has built an app that makes illustrations coloured in by kids come to life on a smartphone.

The aforementioned Recast.ai is also a firm favourite, with Varza keen to note that it was co-founded by 20-something fine-arts graduate Jasmine Anteunis. In fact, the Founders Program (Station F’s biggest programme) has 40pc female-founded start-ups, a number Varza wants to increase by finding more and better ways to support women entrepreneurs on campus.

“This is something we strive for; diversity is really part of our DNA,” she said. “We didn’t want to be ‘just’ a big campus, but actually do something meaningful. That’s why our goal is really to make entrepreneurship more accessible and to make sure that our campus features a variety of different entrepreneurs and projects.”

When you are receiving applications from more than 50 different countries, as Station F did last year, sourcing multicultural campus residents is made that bit easier. “We currently have roughly 30pc of our start-ups coming from outside of France and we also have some international programmes, like the France-China programme,” said Varza.

Then there’s the Fighters Program, which Varza told me is Niel’s favourite of the bunch. “It really shows his vision for entrepreneurship,” she said.

Fighters welcomes ‘underprivileged entrepreneurs’ with no strict definition of the term. They could be founders without any higher education, refugees or people who have overcome any number of difficult situations.

The programme gives selected start-ups one year’s free membership of Station F. There were 200 applications from 27 countries whittled down to 13 teams, which Varza dubbed “incredible”.

One of the Fighters is Digitall, founded by Tally Fofana. A former prison inmate, Fofana was arrested for stealing cars. Now, he is making anti-theft devices using his own experience for development.

What’s next for Station F?

With Station F, Niel, Varza and the expansive team running the sizeable space have carefully cultivated a multicultural campus atmosphere.

“It feels like a university actually, not really like a business park or campus,” said Varza. “Also, many people tell me that they don’t feel like they are in France when they come here. There are people from around the world, you hear many different languages being spoken.”

Nine months in, Station F is really just getting started and there are already extensions in the pipeline. In the coming weeks, an on-campus restaurant built for 1,000 with four kitchens and a bar will open to the public 24/7. There are also plans to launch housing for 600 entrepreneurs later this year.

With all these facilities, founders and ongoing events, Station F sounds like a bustling start-up city, but Varza assured me that even in the Start-up Zone of more than 3,000 desks, one can still find “a great, relaxed vibe”.

“Surprisingly, it’s very quiet! People actually work,” she joked. “I think this is what surprises people most. They expect it to be impossible to work here but it’s quite the contrary!

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.