“I want to turn France into a start-up nation”. This is a phrase attributed to French President Emmanuel Macron, who allegedly reminds his interlocutors often that entrepreneurship is a French word that was borrowed by the English-speaking world.
In 2017, the first year of Mr. Macron’s presidential term, France’s economy posted its highest growth rates in a decade (1.9%, an increase from 1.1% in 2016). One of the main engines of growth was the increase in investments that totalled 3.7% year-on-year. The current conditions are ripe for the Macron administration to place innovative entrepreneurship at the heart of its new economic model for France. The government has already launched important initiatives such as the French “Tech Visa” and the creation of a 10 billion euro fund to foster technology innovation, both of which are drawing the top French scientists back to their native country from Silicon Valley, London, and elsewhere.
Apart from the so-called “Macron pull”, there is also the push from US President Donald Trump on America’s foreigners, as well as the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the UK following the Brexit vote. Whatever the reasons, the statistics speak for themselves: OECD figures show that France has the highest number of start-ups per year in relation to its population size. Last year, it raised more venture capital than both the UK and Germany according to Dealroom, a European venture capital database.
In 2016, public investment bank BPI France financed 80,000 French companies with 24 billion euros through a variety of loans, guarantees, and venture capital financing. The bank first opened in 2012 and was the brainchild of President Macron, who at the time was the top economic advisor of French President Francois Hollande. BPI bank supports several French start-ups that have become success stories internationally such as BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing service and one of the few French “unicorns” (i.e., startups worth more than a billion dollars).
If BPI France is financing innovation, it would be fair to say that KissKissBankBank is introducing innovation in finance. The French start-up, created in 2007 by Adrien Aumont, has evolved over the last ten years into one of the biggest crowdfunding and crowd-lending companies in the world. The company has financed more than 29,000 projects with an aggregate value of 91 million euros spread across three platforms.
Another prime example of France’s innovation drive is Station F, touted as the world’s largest incubator for new companies. The start-up facility is located in a former rail freight depot in Paris, previously known as la Halle Freyssinet (hence the “F” in Station F). The 34,000-m2 facility was formally opened by President Macron in June 2017 and provides office accommodation for up to 1,000 start-up and early stage businesses as well as corporate partners such as Facebook and Microsoft. Just a few months after its formal opening, Station F was already fully booked by around 3,000 young entrepreneurs from 1,000 startups in more than 50 countries.
The incubator’s owner is the prominent French businessman Xavier Niel, who has invested 250 million euros into the project. Mr. Niel (who aims to change the country’s image as a place known mainly for its museums, cuisine, and luxury items) is also the creator and main supporter of Ecole 42, a revolutionary nonprofit and tuition-free school for computer programmers. The school, which is open 24/7, does not have any professors nor does issue any diploma or degree. It’s name comes from a reference to the classic science fiction book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, in which the number 42 is the “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” As of now, more than 10,000 “digital talents” have graduated from Ecole 42, the majority of which have either been hired by technology companies or go on to create their own start-ups, thus feeding the virtuous circle of employment and innovative entrepreneurship in France.