Roxanne Varza Looks Back on the History and Future of Station F
In the middle of Paris’s 13th arrondissement, a few blocks away from the banks of the Seine, stands a former railway depot. It used to be known as la Halle Freyssinet; today it’s simply Station F. And it’s the world’s biggest startup campus, housing 1,000 companies within 34,000 square meters. To put that in Parisian perspective, it’s the size of the Eiffel tower lying down.
We spoke with Roxanne Varza, the director of Station F, to get a sense of what’s been happening since the campus opened in June 2017. Even though Station F’s debut was dogged by a few initial problems—like flooding and problems with entry badges—it’s quickly become a symbol of the thriving French startup scene.
“[It’s] been really promising to see that now…you come to Paris, you see the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and you see Station F as well,” says Varza.
Part of that can be attributed to the roll call of visitors to Station F. The startup campus has not only attracted tech luminaries (the list includes Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, and the founder of Snapchat, Evan Spiegel) but also dignitaries and diplomats from the President of Argentina to the prime minister of Norway.
A Unique Vision For Startups
It’s true that these guests visit partially because of Station F’s sheer size—the capacity of the space is 9,000 people, with 5,000 working on an average day—but it’s also because Station F operates in a unique fashion.
“The reason that we call it a campus is, in many ways, it mirrors a university campus,” says Varza. “We have 30 different startup programs here, and you apply to a program the same way that you would apply to a master’s at a school. It’s not a coworking space; you don’t just show up and reserve a desk and anyone can come. You actually have to apply, be selected, and come for a specific duration of a program.”
The programs cover all the verticals from fintech to med tech, and are sorted by geographic zone and development level. There’s also the Fighter’s Program, which is dedicated to diversity and promoting entrepreneurs coming from difficult and/or underprivileged backgrounds.
“We have somebody that’s a former prisoner today that’s starting a company. We have some very difficult stories, but they actually make great entrepreneurs,” explains Varza. “This person, for example, used to steal cars and now is working on auto anti-theft devices, which I think, who better?”
Silicon Valley, London, Berlin, Station F
But even though Station F encourages uniqueness amongst startups, Varza stresses that Station F aims to create a global, familiar community.
“We’re really just trying to make a startup space, and I think in many ways that actually does resemble what you might see in Silicon Valley, in London, in Berlin, because these are international entrepreneurial places and that’s just what we happen to find here as well.”
Station F was conceived in 2013, in part because investor and entrepreneur Xavier Niel had noticed that the French startup ecosystem was too scattered. Other cities had hubs—like Factory Berlin and Silicon Roundabout—and Niel had the idea to bring French startups together in one central, community-minded space.
And Station F has opened to greater enthusiasm than predicted, partially because of the political forces at work in tech hubs like Silicon Valley and London. As Varza puts it, “A lot of entrepreneurs actually have started to gravitate towards France.”
But Varza and Station F aren’t about to rest on the laurels of their strong first year. One of the issues that Station F is invested in addressing is housing—finding a place within a reasonable commute of the 13th arrondissement is a uniquely Parisian challenge. The solution? Station F will become even more like a university campus and add something like dorms: they’re launching a housing extension that can accommodate 600 people.
“Some people tell us, ‘You know, I moved to Paris, but my first week I was living in a box.’ […] We’re just trying to take all the pain points out so they can really focus on working on their business.”