The birth of Station F, the largest startup incubator in the world, paved the way for a rousing French tech revival. With it comes more anticipated companies like AI photography platform Meero, rural incubator-accelerator UNIQORN, mobility-as-a-service BlaBlaCar, and more.
In recent years, tech companies have started to look at France as one of the most sought-after destinations in Europe for starting a business. There’s no denying that President Emmanuel Macron’s vigorous promotion of the country as the place to be has attracted a lot of attention, especially from top venture capitalists of Silicon Valley.
In 2018 alone, the French president’s meetings with CEOs garnered a pledge of $4.1 billion in investments (roughly €3.5 billion), and an estimate of 2,200 jobs for the foreseeable future. In an effort to make the landscape more accessible to enterprises, Macron has also pushed for changes in labor laws as well as the introduction of a four-year tech visa for those coming from abroad. “I want France to be a startup nation, meaning both a nation that works with and for the startups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a startup,” he says. “We are at the beginning of a new momentum.”
The post-Brexit advantage
Being hyped as an alternative to Britain—considered to be the tech leader in the region—there is a genuine desire to find the next Google right in the heart of Paris, and perhaps even in neighboring cities.
In fact, what is probably the world’s biggest startup hub, Station F, sits proudly in the 13th arrondissement, housing a thousand names and counting. It was founded by French billionaire and tech mogul Xavier Niel, who envisioned an ecosystem of startups and investors. What used to be a freight station was converted into a mega-workspace that fosters collaboration and creativity, and of course, helps fledgling companies get funding for their ideas. According to director Roxanne Varza: “We consider ourselves a startup campus…We are really looking at making entrepreneurship more accessible.”
Station F’s launch has definitely helped in keeping Macron’s impetus up and running, with most its startups flourishing alongside Microsoft and Facebook, who have also taken up offices in the massive incubator space.
The promise of an exciting talent pool led to a steady stream of venture capital in France. Ernst & Young reported that in the first half of 2019, French startups fetched almost $3 billion (€2.79 billion) in tech investments—overcoming Germany, another powerhouse in the European startup scene.
Vive la tech
One of those lucky recipients is Paris-based Meero, whose artificial intelligence platform connects photographers with clientele like Trivago and Expedia. It raised $230 million (estimated €210 million), making it one of the biggest funding rounds last year.
Meanwhile, mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) BlaBlaCar is now valued at $1 billion (almost €915 million). From carpooling, it has expanded its transport network to include buses across 400 cities and 22 countries, growing its revenue by 71%. It is currently at the forefront of the long-distance rideshare market in the continent.
Doctolib, an online management service for medical appointments, also joined the unicorn club when it raised $164 million (€150 million), making it the “biggest e-health investment in a decade.”
Making an impact in the agricultural technology sector is Ynsect, who got $125 million (about €114 million) in Series-C funding. The farming startup produces premium ingredients used in feeds and fertilizers, and has plans of creating the world’s largest insect farm in Amiens, France.
From urban to rural cities
Not to be left in the past, rural France also has a lot to offer and is vital to French economy. From idyllic Provence to quaint Brittany, there is an abundance of charm unique to these postcard-perfect locations.
But beyond tourism, the startup culture also thrives in these parts. One need not look further than Sarlat-la-Canéda, a preserved historic town in Dordogne, where incubator-accelerator UNIQORN has decided to put down roots in a historical building surrounded by other architectural marvels and succulent cuisine.
With an intention to support French unicorns from inception to execution, founder Dom Einhorn believes in the power of locale: “We intend to provide our startups with the very best ecosystem in which to thrive while offering them a pristine location in which to work from—away from noise, pollution, traffic and undue stress.”
Jean Vignon, co-founder and CFO, adds: “Given an equal level of funding, a UNIQORN-incubated startup has a 70% higher chance of surviving than a comparable startup incubated in a large city. Rents in Sarlat, for example, are 5-20 times lower on average than in big cities while the quality of life is vastly improved. An average employee commute to the office from home takes a mere five minutes—on foot.” The team is set to travel to Istanbul, Turkey to attend the 2020 World Business Angels Investment Forum.
Indeed, Sarlat is ripe for an incubation and acceleration hub. It is the perfect addition to an already bustling district of prehistoric landmarks and undisputed gastronomy which has attracted anyone and everyone who wants a change of pace. The best resources and infrastructure like telecoms and high-speed internet are available to any business, as well as fiscal and legal incentives.
Its mission is to champion entrepreneurs while helping them build game-changing technology startups, incubator-accelerators like UNIQORN operating in the countryside are much-needed and can only be a source of further strength.
A more entrepreneurial France
While the bureaucratic system still has a lot to improve on—it is no secret that red tape is an administrative nightmare—enthusiasm for French tech is ever-growing. It might even be enough to meet the government’s goal of establishing 20 unicorns by 2025.
In order to achieve this, an innovation ecosystem must be in place. The industry should be huge enough to accommodate increased interest with well-placed employment, and the scale-up should be welcoming enough that startups in early stages can easily prosper.
Kat Borlongan, director of La French Tech, a movement to bolster startups, wants to focus on making the transition as painless as possible for those coming to work and live in France. “From what I know we’re the only country that actually has a national startup strategy,” she says. “We’re investing in the future.”
Tour de force
There is no doubt that France is fast becoming a powerhouse of tech investment—if it’s not already there today. Being an entrepreneur brings not only a sense of accomplishment but also purpose, as the large influx of startups and venture capital has undeniably improved the economy and society.
Florence Vasilescu, founder and CEO of Firm Funding, thinks that startups “help people unleash their energy and potential for creativity, more than large corporations do.” And with the country’s latest measures regarding taxes and stock options, as well as more resources allotted for artificial intelligence research and development, it is no wonder that half a million companies sprout every year.
Per Business France, a business can be created within 3.5 days on average, compared to that in the United Kingdom (4.5 days) or Germany (10.5 days). With an ecosystem value of $19 billion for Paris alone (€17.5 billion), working and living on this side of the world is surely an attractive option for emerging companies and investors with deep pockets.