Paris is pitching itself as the next-best thing for tech startups

If you build it, they will come.
If you build it, they will come.
Image: Station F/Patrick Tourneboeuf
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Station F had a good second birthday.

To mark the occasion, the startup accelerator in Paris gathered hundreds of people in its underground amphitheater on June 27 to name its top 30 startups of the year, and preview an event on diversity and female entrepreneurship. Station F also unveiled Flatmates, a shared apartments complex under construction the past two years that opened to tenants for the first time last week. There were trays of madeleines and a stage with thudding speakers. The amphitheater stayed mercifully cool as temperatures in Paris cracked 32°C (90°F).

Station F was founded in 2016 by billionaire telecom mogul Xavier Niel, who gave it €250 million ($285 million) and a mandate to put Paris on the startup map. It opened in a refurbished railway depot in central Paris in June 2017. Today, Station F houses more than 1,000 early-stage startups, including incubator programs sponsored by Facebook and Microsoft. It’s a stop on France’s official presidential tour for visiting dignitaries, along with the Eiffel Tower and Louvre museum.

Two years isn’t long to establish your city as a major tech hub, so it’s not surprising that Paris still isn’t thought of as one. Any place would struggle to compete with Silicon Valley, which is literally synonymous with technology. In Europe, London looms large over the tech scene, given its position as a global financial capital with a booming fintech sector. But as Station F director Roxanne Varza will tell you, there are perks to being Paris—especially these days.

Brexit is scaring young companies away from London, and deterring venture capitalists from investing. The Trump administration has made it harder for immigrant tech workers to obtain a visa in the US. Sky-high rents and an affordability crisis in San Francisco have everyone thinking twice about Silicon Valley.

This helps Paris’s pitch. “A lot of people tell us actually when they apply, ‘Brexit played into my decision to apply here.’ So we’re seeing that. We’ve also seen Trump have an impact, Silicon Valley prices have an impact,” Varza says. “It’s crazy. Thank god our president has been pro-business so far.”

Station conductor

Inside Station F.
Inside Station F.
Image: Courtesy/Station F

“If you build it, they will come,” that famous line from Field of Dreams, could be Station F’s motto. The 34,000-square-meter (366,000 square feet) startup complex is the world’s largest, according to Station F reps, with space for 3,000 desks. The modish decor includes brightly colored furniture, vaulted glass ceilings, and meeting rooms named for the Millennium Falcon and Hogwarts Express. Varza says the design was inspired by Google’s campuses in London and Mountain View, and the startup community Factory Berlin. Station F’s pay-by-the-hour coffee shop, Anticafé, is open to the public, as is a walkway that cuts between the buildings, and a popular restaurant.

Much attention has been paid to Varza, a 34-year-old woman from Palo Alto who is an unlikely spokesperson for French tech. “I’ve had people take me for the intern, take me for the translator,” she says. Varza moved to France about 10 years ago and joined Station F in 2015. One of her signature contributions was insisting on the name Station F over Halle Freyssinet, the name of the historical train depot. She also pushed for Station F to handle all internal communications in English, to give the program more international appeal.

It’s tempting to compare Station F to WeWork, with its co-working areas and, now, shared apartments. But unlike WeWork, Station F isn’t out to make a profit. It charges €195 per month for a desk, while a dedicated desk at WeWork in Paris starts at €500 a month. Station F also rents out private offices and event spaces and services, and takes a cut of revenue from the restaurant. Varza says the goal is to cover operational costs, which come to €7-8 million a year.

Flatmates, the complex of shared apartments Station F opened last week, is also designed to break even. A “standard” room is priced at €399 a month, a “premium” room with a private bathroom at €549 a month (the bathroom is not en suite but rather says “PRIVATE” in large black lettering on the door, so the privacy of it depends somewhat on the cooperation of your flatmates), and a “couple” room with a private bathroom at €799 a month. The median rent for a studio apartment in Paris is €1,079 per month. Meanwhile in New York City, rent for a studio apartment at WeLive, WeWork’s apartment leasing business, starts at $3,175 per month.

Flatmates is located a 10-minute bike or scoot—electric scooters are very hot in Paris right now, and Station F has partnered with shared e-scooter provider Dott—from the main startup campus. The complex includes 100 apartments with six rooms each, spread between three towers, for a total of 600 rooms. The units are cozy but efficient, with modular furniture that can be arranged as easily for hanging out as for long coding sessions.

The goal of Flatmates is to make Paris, and Station F, a more accessible home for startups. Varza calls it “a push to really make people’s arrival much easier,” noting that housing in Paris is expensive and landlords often require tenants to earn multiple times the rent, or to provide a local guarantor.

Marc Prempain, 27, moved into Flatmates on June 24. He’s been at Station F for a year working on his company Viibe, a customer-service platform that uses augmented reality to diagnose technical problems, and is hoping to stay another year. Before Flatmates, he rented a studio in Paris. Prempain, who is originally from Normandy, said he’s looking forward to speaking English with his roommates.

Neither San Francisco nor London

The living room of an apartment in Station F's Flatmates housing complex.
The living room of a Flatmates unit.
Image: Quartz/Alison Griswold

Paris has a long way to go before it catches up to London, much less Silicon Valley. But France is gaining investor interest, bolstered by president Emmanuel Macron’s tech-friendly policies, while financing to British startups has slowed. Venture funding for tech companies in France climbed to €2.3 billion in 2018, up 42% from €1.6 billion in 2017, according to data from industry research firm PitchBook. In the UK, tech venture funding fell to €5.4 billion in 2018, from €6.6 billion the previous year.

It’s odd to think that Paris’s best shot at becoming a tech hub could be crises elsewhere, but it’s a possibility. Station F might never make Paris the world’s leading startup destination, but perhaps, as founders and investors sour on London and San Francisco, it can turn the city into the next-best option.

“A lot of people are leaving San Francisco or choosing not to go anymore, whereas a few years ago everyone was going—that was the place you went if you had a business,” Varza says. “Today, people are actually coming to Paris, which almost feels surreal, but it’s a new trend that we’re seeing.”

Susana Abreu Ribeiro is associate director for Cairn Biosciences, a biotech company based in San Francisco that registered a Paris branch in November 2018. The company considered opening an office in the UK, she said, “but because of Brexit it was not a very interesting option.” They’ve been at Station F since February.

Clément Aglietta is co-founder and CEO of Kushim, a company that makes software for venture capital firms. He joined Station F in January 2018. Kushim is incorporated in the US and Aglietta hopes to open an office in San Francisco, but while the company is young he says Paris is a better fit. One member of his team is now applying to live at Flatmates.

“Building the software doesn’t really make sense in California because we’d have to fight Google, Facebook, and Amazon on salaries,” Aglietta says. “In Europe we can hire very talented developers for a better price.”