The team behind Paris-based Station F probably didn’t need any more pressure after spending $220 million and three years building what they say is the world’s largest startup campus. But on the day of its grand opening in late June 2017, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron stood on a stage in the middle of the vast space of the renovated one-time train station and sent expectations into the stratosphere. “Transform our country, shake it up, change it,” he said. “This responsibility is as much yours as it is mine.”
That task now falls on the shoulders of director Roxanne Varza, a Silicon Valley ex-pat who moved to Paris in 2009. After working as a tech journalist and then director of startup relations for Microsoft, she was hired in 2015 to oversee the creation of Station F by its mastermind, Xavier Niel. The billionaire founder of telecom company Iliad, which operates Free—an upstart French wireless, internet, and cable provider—had purchased the decaying train station, Halle Freyssinet, to create something audacious as an emblem of France’s startup ambitions.
“For our first year, it’s a beta test on all levels,” Varza said. “We’re going to see what’s working. There’s still stuff we haven’t had to do yet. This first year will be a lot about tweaking.”
Station F is part of an emerging trend across Europe, as nascent tech hubs try to boost their startup economies. The city of Helsinki is adapting a massive abandoned hospital into a startup campus called Maria 01. Outside Venice, a rural incubator is building a startup campus called H-Farm. And in East London, the giant tech hub Here East opened this year in the buildings that once served as the press center for the 2012 Olympics. Each is designed to make a big statement. But in general, they’re all attempts to bring the pieces of an innovation ecosystem under one roof.
At 34,000 square meters, Station F is big enough to house 26 different entire startup programs, including ones run by Facebook and Microsoft. There are also three venture firms with offices there, various corporate partnerships underway, and perks for residents offered by companies such as Airbnb and Amazon. Even former French president François Hollande will have an office there. Station F will also soon oversee two apartment buildings nearby for entrepreneurs, and a retail and restaurant section that will be open around-the-clock.
The launch of Station F comes at an interesting moment for France’s tech scene. When it was first announced in 2014, the country was just starting to gain momentum under the government’s French tech program. Three years later, France has seen big growth in the number of startups and the amount of venture capital raised, and an explosion in tech momentum capped in some ways by the election in 2017 of Macron. He had been an entrepreneurial champion in his previous job as economic minister.
And yet none of this has diminished the hype building around Station F, or the belief that it could indeed represent a signature moment in the country’s startup history. “I think we’re really looking at being an international player,” Varza said. “When entrepreneurs come to Europe, we want them to think of France. And when they think of France, we want them to think of Station F.”