2016 01 21 What is claimed as the world’s largest technology incubator is taking shape in Paris.
EU technology policies need to reach the start-up audience !
Éanna Kelly, Science|Business
What is claimed as the world’s largest technology incubator is taking shape in Paris. Its director, Roxanne Varza, says the city is gathering steam as a digital hub and the EU needs to support European start-ups in going global
Roxanne Varza, director of 1000Startups.fr
An 87-year-old former railroad depot in central Paris is about to enter the digital age as a centre with room for 1,000 start-ups, in what will be the largest incubator in the world.
The ambitious project, scheduled to open in 2017, is being spearheaded by French billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel, with the French government and the city of Paris underwriting some of the cost.
Roxanne Varza, formerly head of Microsoft's start-up activities and editor of TechCrunch France, was recently picked as director of the new venture.
In an interview Varza told Science|Business how this venture and the Paris start-up scene as a whole are progressing, and what politicians in Brussels could do to help European technology companies grow and expand.
How many companies have signed up to your incubator?
We will allow start-ups to apply later this year but we haven't started the applications process yet.
What distinguishes your incubator from a co-working space? Will there be investment for companies or experts on hand to give start-ups advice, for example?
First of all, our size and ambition: we are the biggest start-up incubator in the world with over 34,000 square metres dedicated to start-ups in central Paris. Our space is really one-of-a-kind, including a number of on site and nearby services that you don't necessarily find in other spaces.
Are you concerned the scale of the project might actually be a weakness – can companies really get the intensive coaching they might need in such a large place?
Actually I would say our weakness is going to be that we won't be able to house a lot of large start-ups – we are really a better model for smaller companies. When companies raise funds and start building larger teams, they want a more private space. But that's not really a disadvantage for us because we're really more about working with smaller companies.
Paris is rarely mentioned in the same breath as London, Berlin or Stockholm when people talk about tech hubs in Europe. Why not?
Really? I would have to disagree! Paris rarely ranks 1st on the list but is usually included in the top entrepreneurial or tech cities in Europe. And I think France is continuing to prove that it's up there – companies like Blablacar are helping to attract more foreign investors to France.
There are numerous companies starting to raise multi-million euro rounds of funding, which wasn't the case a few years ago. There have been a handful of French teams at YC, Microsoft and Cisco actively eyeing France for acquisition and investment, over 200 French start-ups at CES [the global electronics and technology tradeshow] in Las Vegas this year, and now we're working on opening the world's largest incubator here as well. So I really don't think I can agree – France is making headway.
Some recent figures say Paris has the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs in Europe, beating cities such as London, Berlin and Amsterdam. What do you put this down to?
I have to agree with the poll. I founded the French and UK branches of Girls in Tech, a non-profit organisation to promote women in tech. It's funny because when I compare the launch in France to the launch in the UK, they are very different experiences – the UK was actually much more challenging and there was even some hostility from female entrepreneurs.
There's been a huge spike in the number of entrepreneurs in France – both men and women. We still have fewer females in purely technical positions but I think entrepreneurship in France has definitely attracted a lot of women. Girls in Tech hosts an annual pan-European competition for start-ups founded by women. We had over 300 applicants from 28 different countries, but France brought in the highest number of applicants, followed by the UK and then Italy.
I can't exactly say what this is due to, but I do think that the French ecosystem has always been very conscious of the gender gap and there are numerous initiatives that are striving to change it.
Do you ever train your eye on what officials in Brussels are saying or doing to help start-ups and companies in Europe – and are any of their efforts notable?
I have been in touch with people in the European Commission and have obviously heard about some of their initiatives. I met some of the people involved in innovation in Brussels and I was surprised to see all the things they were doing. But it's so poorly communicated. It doesn't speak to a start-up audience, which is really a shame.
And obviously I'm interested to see what Commission vice-president Andrus Ansip will do with his Single Digital Market initiative.
One group I encourage the EU to pay attention to is Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom's European Tech Alliance. I think the Commission needs to be prepared for the next generation of European start-ups – not young start-ups but top international start-ups and scale-ups. And I think the Commission needs to be in touch with these companies and really understand their challenges and needs.
So this lobby was a very interesting move and hopefully will help make the Commission more aware of what is needed as our European start-ups go global.
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