Station F’s Roxanne Varza: ‘Diversity is fundamental to innovation’

15 Feb 2019

Roxanne Varza, Station F. Image: Pascal Othlingaus

The leader of the biggest start-up campus in the world wants to make it possible for anyone with ambition to succeed.

Station F, the super-sized incubator in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, has enough space to house the Eiffel Tower.

But it is clear that the sheer scale of Station F matches the size of project leader Roxanne Varza’s personal ambition to create a world of difference for entrepreneurs, wherever they come from, whatever their background.

‘Our vision is to make entrepreneurship more accessible’

Varza, who is of Persian descent, is deeply steeped in the start-up world. She previously headed up Microsoft’s French start-up activities, including BizSpark and Microsoft Ventures, and was the editor of TechCrunch France. She is also co-founder of the start-up news site, and of Girls in Tech Paris and Girls in Tech London.

A scaled-up vision

Man in white shirt standing on a balcony with Eiffel Tower in the background.

French billionaire Xavier Niel. Image: Jean Francois Robert

Station F, which is a mammoth 34,000 sq m in size, is an initiative of French billionaire Xavier Niel, owner of telecoms networks in France and Italy and now Ireland, having led a consortium that agreed to acquire a majority stake in Eir at an enterprise value of about €3.5bn in late 2017.

Varza is intent on driving multiple programmes that will make a difference for founders, including affordable housing to allow them to focus on the business of building businesses without the distraction of high rents.

“Our vision is to make entrepreneurship more accessible,” said Varza. “Essentially, we’ve created an entire ecosystem under one roof with all the resources necessary for young companies, including public services, investors, prototyping equipment, various experts and more.

“We currently house 1,000 start-ups from around the world that take part in 30 different programmes. These programmes are run by corporates, universities or start-up organisations, and Station F runs two programmes as well. We will be launching a housing offer later this year so that our entrepreneurs can find an easy, flexible and affordable housing solution while they build their companies as well.”

One of the interesting aspects of Station F is how international its focus is. “We have more than 1,000 start-ups at Station F and approximately one-third of them are from outside of France. We received applications from over 78 countries, and the countries that sent us the most applications (in order) were the US, the UK, China and India; you can clearly see that there are some politics at play. A lot of companies that may have gone to the US or the UK are now looking elsewhere because of Donald Trump, high Silicon Valley prices and Brexit.”

She explained that Station F’s start-ups cover a wide range of topics. “We’ve got crazy robots, holograms, 3D-printed materials, connected clothing, you name it. We have 30 different programmes and each programme has its own specific topic, development stage or geographic location. However, the topics that are the most represented on campus are B2B SaaS solutions, AI, and B2C applications and products. I say ‘products’ because we do have some non-tech products, like innovative cosmetics and food products. Roughly 90pc of our companies are in the tech/digital space.”

Varza said that Station F’s campus model is unique. “We can’t really be compared to a co-working space or an incubator because we have 30 different incubators or programmes and a lot more services on campus that set us apart from other players. Our housing offer should also add to this.”

All-encompassing, all-inclusive

The dynamic at play at Station F is that people with the determination to succeed will find a home for their thoughts and ideas.

“I’m not sure there are many other sites where you can find 1,000 different companies from lots of different countries. We have entrepreneurs from all backgrounds as well – many foreigners, many women – and we also have a dedicated programme for entrepreneurs coming from underprivileged backgrounds,” said Varza.

“We really want to make it possible for anyone to succeed when given the right resources and environment, and we believe diversity is fundamental to innovation.”

Asked about the entrepreneurial spirit in Paris and in wider France, Varza said: “The start-up scene in Paris is really thriving – but this has been the case for the last few years. France is now one of the leading places in Europe when it comes to funding, especially early-stage funding, and it is also a leading location for technical talent. I also think the current president has really contributed to giving France a more pro-business image, so we are seeing many more international entrepreneurs choose France to launch their companies.”

But what is France doing right in terms of fostering start-ups and what areas need to improve?

“In short, France is doing a lot,” Varza replied. “As I said, France is an excellent location for funding and technical talent. In addition, there have been a lot of resources and infrastructure for start-ups that have been developed in the last few years. Today, a majority of young graduates want to start or work at a start-up – this is a huge change from five years ago.

“There are only two real areas of improvement in my mind. First, there is limited growth capital – but this is not a problem that is specific to France. This forces scale-ups to seek funding in places like the US and Asia. And finally, there is still an underdeveloped exit market in France. Start-ups are likely to IPO in the US and acquisitions by French companies are still somewhat rare.”

So, what does the future hold for Station F?

“We don’t plan to open other Station Fs elsewhere for the moment, although we do have quite a few extension plans in Paris. We have our co-living project opening this year and we will have additional commercial and hotel spaces in the next few years,” Varza concluded.

“We will also be looking at developing an international strategy – but we will probably be focusing on a few core markets, the ones that are the most interesting for our start-ups.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years