he world’s largest start-up campus has heavyweights such as Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, which were once start-ups themselves, showing the way to young entrepreneurs.
What do Amazon Web Services (AWS), Startup Garage by Facebook, Microsoft and Ubisoft have in common? Yes, they are all tech companies, but they also share a big office where their employees, and those of dozens of other similar companies, work together and even perhaps mingle during meals at Anticafe. It’s the Station F—the world’s largest start-up campus—in Paris.
Backed by billionaire French entrepreneur-investor Xavier Niel, this 34,000-sqm building hosts an entire start-up ecosystem under one roof. In 2013, Niel acquired a former railway depot called Halle Freyssinet with the idea to launch the world’s biggest start-up space. “He wanted to make entrepreneurship more accessible, and add more coherence and unity to the fragmented startup ecosystem,” notes Roxanne Varza, director, Station F, who earlier led Microsoft Ventures Paris and TechCrunch France.
In October 2014, the site opened in the presence of then French president François Hollande. In June 2016, it was named Station F, “because it was originally a railway station and, moreover, the name appealed to the worldwide start-up community,” says Rachel Vanier, communications director of Station F. In December 2016, start-up applications opened and the first campus members were announced at TechCrunch Disrupt in London. These included Facebook, Techshop, Daphni and vente-privee, among others. “We will expand more, with the opening up of the housing extension for 600 entrepreneurs,” adds Vanier.
The campus consists of three zones: Share, Create and Chill. The Share zone provides event spaces and services for entrepreneurs. It includes six event spaces, including a 370-seat auditorium and a ‘creativity room’ for brainstorming sessions. There are also start-up services in this zone, including the Tech Lab with 3D printers, laser cutters and workshops; and private offices that host tech companies such as AWS and Zendesk, and VC offices for funds Daphni, Kima Ventures and Ventech.
The Create zone, Vanier says, is the backbone of Station F. “It is where all start-ups work hard to change the world” is how she puts it. It has 3,000 desks divided among 20-plus international start-up programmes. “Each programme has a dedicated number of desks and manages its start-ups independently. However, all programmes contribute to the rest of the campus by organising workshops and events for the community, or sharing resources,” Vanier says. In this zone, companies such as Facebook, Zendesk, BNP Paribas+Plug and Play and Ubisoft have programmes on site.
“To get access to Station F, a start-up must apply to one of the programmes, just like a student would apply to a certain Major at a university,” Vanier says. Each programme focuses on a specific industry vertical or theme, including medtech, fintech, adtech, cyber security, augmented content, early-stage start-ups, etc. In addition, Station F provides three in-house programmes: the Founders Programme for early-stage start-ups, the Fighters Programme for entrepreneurs from underprivileged backgrounds, and the Fellowship, an annual membership that provides campus access five days a month for start-ups of all stages and locations.
The Chill zone, as the name suggests, includes rest areas and cafes.
Mentors and mentees
At Station F, AWS has a mentor’s office, dedicated to Amazon’s popular cloud services. Notes Darren Mowry, AWS start-up director, in a testimonial, “Station F and AWS share the same mission: Facilitate start-ups’ success by providing them with the resources they need. Here, AWS provides technical and business assistance to young businesses to help them launch and boost their activity using the cloud.”
Facebook, which itself emerged from a vibrant start-up ecosystem in the US, runs its Startup Garage—the company’s first physical accelerator worldwide specialising in data—from Station F. It is working with a group of 12 data-driven start-ups to accelerate their businesses in innovative ways. “We selected start-ups that recognise the possibilities, potential and promise of improving people’s lives through data. Great ideas can thrive when start-ups have the space to grow and can learn from each other,” notes Caroline Matte, start-up programme manager, Facebook.
Microsoft, along with research institution Inria, plans to launch a programme for AI start-ups. The company will offer technology and business mentoring for start-ups at Station F.
And then there are a few business schools which run their incubator programmes from Station F. Recently, the EDHEC Business School extended its start-up incubator network, called EDHEC Young Entrepreneurs, in Lille and and Nice campuses, to Station F. “It will allow our start-ups to access an ecosystem that is unique in the world,” said Jean-Michel Ledru, the director of EDHEC Young Entrepreneurs. Similarly, HEC Paris, the French business school, runs HEC Entrepreneurs startup incubator from Station F.