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Station F is a €250m statement of France's tech ambitions — and Britain should be worried

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
French president Emmanuel Macron addresses the audience as he visits the Station F startup campus in Paris, France. Photo: Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP

I have spent the week in Paris and it has convinced me that the city is Europe’s most exciting tech hub — and London should be worried.

I visited for the Paris Blockchain Week summit, a two-day conference meant to attract blockchain businesses to the city. My biggest takeaway from the event was not the content but the venue — Station F.

Opened in June 2017, Station F is the world’s largest startup incubator. The 34,000 square meter former train depot in the 13th arrondissement of Paris is home to 1,000 startups. Incubator programmes from the likes of Facebook (FB) and Microsoft (MSFT) are based there and I spotted logos for Google (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN), and Apple (AAPL) dotted around the space, showing their involvement too.

People visit the world's biggest start-up incubator Station F in Paris, France. Photo: Bertrand Guay, Pool photo via AP

As well as providing a focal point for the French tech scene, Station F acts as a statement of ambition. France wants to become the number one country for tech in Europe.

“Our goal is to become the leading ecosystem,” Cedric O, France’s minister for the digital economy, said during his closing speech at the conference. “This is not only about blockchain, but this is about the general framework that we want to set up.”

Station F is a private sector initiative, the brain-child of French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel who invested €250m into the project. But it has received significant support from the government, which wants to foster France’s emerging tech sector. French president Emmanuel Macron officially opened the venue back in 2017 and has been back to visit since.

“France has been investing for many years in creating a favourable environment for startups,” O said in his speech this week. “We are gaining pace.”

As examples of progress, O cited the French Tech Visa programme launched last year by Macron, as well as government plans for artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

The Paris Blockchain Week summit at Station F. Photo: Paris Blockchain Week Summit

All of this is good news for France. But it is potentially worrying for the UK.

In a press conference after his speech, O made it clear that France wants to “overtake” the UK as Europe’s tech hub. It’s not a direct competition — the continent is big enough for both countries to thrive — but the unique moment the UK finds itself in with Brexit means the London tech scene could be threatened. The growth of French tech could be as much about London’s decline as it is Paris’ rise.

The UK’s tech scene was helped in part by lavish government support under former prime minister David Cameron. That has largely evaporated under the current government, which finds its time consumed by Brexit and little else.

The never-ending Brexit drama poses an existential threat to most industries, with tech no different. The uncertainty surrounding the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU could push tech businesses to move overseas, or put off foreign companies from setting up in London.

This may not come to pass. Others may dismiss Paris’ chances of becoming a serious tech hub due to factors like its stricter labour laws or relative lack of engineering talent.

London remains well ahead of Paris, with around double the number of funded tech startups based there, according to venture capital firm Atomico’s State of European Tech 2018 report.

London remains well ahead of Paris in terms of funded tech companies. Photo: Atomico

But for anyone who thinks London and the UK are bound to remain number one, I recommend catching a Eurostar and visiting Station F. It is a multi-million euro monument to France’s tech ambition under Emmanuel Macron and a strong reminder that France isn’t messing around.

This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the stance of the rest of Yahoo Finance UK.

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