May 3, 2018 / 5:14 AM / 15 days ago

After a year of Macron, start-up hum grows at Paris's Station F

PARIS (Reuters) - If there’s one industry Emmanuel Macron has sought to tie his political fortunes to since storming to victory in France’s presidential election last May, it’s technology.

Barely a month after he entered the Elysee Palace, the world’s largest start-up incubator opened its doors on the other side of Paris, bringing hi-tech buzz to the French capital.

Station F, created by telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel, an ally of the president, had long been in the works. But the timing of its opening — and the fact Macron attended it — has created a connection between the two.

So after a year in office, has Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and self-confessed tech champion, managed to breathe new life into French entrepreneurship?

Roxanne Varza, a 33-year-old Iranian-American whom Niel put in charge of Station F, is quick to emphasise that France’s start-up scene didn’t begin with Macron. But she acknowledges that the president’s youth, energy and enthusiasm have raised its profile, stimulating the flow of ideas and investment.

“It’s not something that changed from one day to the next as soon as he arrived,” said Varza, a fluent French speaker and former start-up adviser at Microsoft France.

“(But) we’ve definitely seen a lot of international funds, international entrepreneurs, starting to get more interested in coming to or coming back to France to create their business,” since he took office, she told Reuters.

“We’ve really seen him send a pro-business message, and a lot of investors have taken hold of that.”

START-UP ‘ECOSYSTEM’

Since its opening last June, Station F, occupying a vast train depot in the edgy southeast of Paris, has taken in around 2,000 start-ups, with entrepreneurs from the United States, Britain, China and India, alongside France.

Roxanne Varza, director of "Station F", a mega-campus for startups located inside a former freight railway depot, poses for a photograph in Paris, France, March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

As well as providing an environment for ideas to percolate and grow, the incubator houses venture capital, private equity and other early-stage investors, and makes room for corporate partners such as Facebook and Microsoft, too.

The aim — ambitious as it may sound — is to have 10,000 start-ups pass through Station F in the first five years, with the hope that the next Uber or Spotify will be among them.

Since coming to office, Macron has talked about wanting France to be a world leader in artificial intelligence and ‘deep-tech’, and several of the world’s biggest tech firms have announced plans to invest with that goal in mind.

When foreign leaders, business tycoons or dignitaries visit, one of their first stops is usually at Station F.

The incubator keeps its focus broad — start-ups can be in AI, gaming, the environment, medical or any sector. The key, says Varza, is to create an ‘ecosystem’ of ideas and the funds to back them, from gestation through later-stage development.

One of the first policy initiatives Macron undertook was to make it easier for companies to fire and hire. Now he’s promising to cut corporate tax rates and abolish an ‘exit tax’ levied on entrepreneurs who take assets out of France.

Overall, the aim is to change the image of France as a place to invest and do business.

“He’s been able to really communicate a message that there’s a lot going on here, there’s a lot of opportunity, and the government wants to help and make things easier,” said Varza.

Slideshow (3 Images)

France still lags Britain and Germany when it comes to how much money its start-ups raise, and the three combined are a fraction of the United States. But Station F, and Macron, are hoping incremental change will pay off over time.

“When you come to Paris, you see the Louvre, you see the Eiffel Tower and now you see Station F,” said Varza. “It’s great for our start-ups to have that sort of exposure.”

Additional reporting by Mathieu Rosemain; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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