Roxanne Varza, director of Parisian startup mega campus Station F, has had a front seat on the French tech express over the past decade.
In the years since Station F opened in 2017, France has seen startup funding more than triple and the number of unicorns more than quadruple.
As an angel investor (and one of Sequoia’s most active scouts in Europe) with more than 60 deals under her belt now, Varza is also getting to place some bets in the sector.
In the first episode of the Sifted podcast this year, editor Amy Lewin speaks to Varza about what’s on founders’ minds right now, Station F’s expansion plans and what she’s learned so far as an angel investor.
Read on for lightly edited highlights from our conversation — or listen to the full episode here.
What’s top of founders’ minds as we go into 2024?
Right now, things are actually quite optimistic compared to last year, despite the fact that fundraising has become more difficult. I feel that people are excited to build, and we’re seeing some very serious founders — people that are very committed to building a business, and have previous founder startup and scaleup and/or industry experience… and people leaving very credible companies. We’ve seen a lot of that in AI recently; people leaving the likes of DeepMind to launch new companies.
How can we stop superstars like AI startup Hugging Face, a Station F alum, moving to the US?
It’s often an early-stage move to join programmes like YC or, in the case of Hugging Face, [New York startup accelerator] Betaworks, which require that you move your headquarter to the US. I think the arguments behind that are not so much for investors — because investors are now very present [in Europe] and investing locally in our companies — but it’s for the exit market. If you want to exit, the IPO market is in the US. A lot of the acquirers for these tech companies are still very US-based. And I think that’s something that Europe as a whole needs to address. I don’t think it’s specific to France.
The government is definitely very, very aware of it; everyone’s talking about it. So I think that’s something we can expect to address soon. The exit market is the big issue.
It’s all quite different from what we saw in 2021; people know that building a company is hard, that you’re not going to get a term sheet right away, and so we’re seeing people that are very deeply motivated about building a big company.
French tech has been something of a phenomenon in the past few years. What do you think have been the most helpful interventions or measures that the French government has put in place?
They've been really good at addressing a lot of the issues in the funding landscape. Quite a few years ago, there was very little early-stage funding, and there was no late stage funding. The French public bank Bpifrance is really powering a lot of the different financial elements of the startup ecosystem; they're giving out small size grants, they're investing in a lot of different types of funds addressing the different gaps.
The government has also done a lot to leverage their connections to get more late-stage funding available. So I think everything in funding has been really well done with the government. And they're very proactive about it: when Covid hit, the government actively reached out to people like Station F and people in the ecosystem to say, "What do we need to do? What has to happen?" And then when we had the drop in 2022 versus 2021, they were right there being like, "What do we need to do?"
Having an organisation dedicated to that is really important, as is having someone in the government identified as a digital minister. At the same time, they've never overstepped their mark, which I think a lot of governments could do, thinking that they need to actively get involved in building companies.
Do you think all the hype around AI startups is having a negative impact on non-AI startups?
AI is very high up at the moment — but I don’t think other sectors are being snubbed. I’m seeing a lot of founders that are very driven by climate — and a lot of second-time founders with credible backgrounds go towards that area. The French government has also tried to really boost quantum.
I’m also hearing more investors say, "Oh crypto, definitely not hot, but great time to invest." [I've] started to hear that more and more recently.
Your boss, Station F founder Xavier Niel, is also pretty excited by AI; he recently convinced Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, to fund an AI lab in Paris. Do you know what he’s got up his sleeve next?
I wish I knew. He's very committed to AI at the moment — through the lab that they launched, through Scaleway, through all his investments through [early-stage VC] Kima. But in the past, he’s launched projects that I think none of us could have predicted. Hectare, for example, which is his big agricultural school; I think nobody imagined he would go after agritech. But I think sometimes he also bases it on who he meets, and the opportunity at the moment. So I'll be just as surprised as anyone.
He’s somebody who wants to give back to the country, he’s somebody who doesn't come from the elite, so he's very committed to creating experiences and opening up more options for people who don't come from the elite. And you'll see that repeated in his projects. So Station F, for example: he wanted 1k companies to be in our building, but actually the Fighters programme, which is for people from unconventional and underrepresented backgrounds. That was him, he said to me, "I need you to build something for them." And that was the same for École 42, his free coding school; he was very adamant that we need something where you can come from anywhere, and you can have access to the school, and it's free.
Might there one day be another Station F?
We have been receiving requests from day one from literally every country — and it especially happens when their presidents and prime ministers come and visit and they see Station F, and say “I want one in my country!”
But I think we will never see Xavier put down €300m again, and I can completely understand why. But we would love to help other ecosystems that have similar space and ecosystems that resemble France five or six years ago; we feel that there's a lot that we can help them do. We've seen countries come with abandoned military sites, abandoned factories… and they're incredible places we could give new purpose, and they could build a local economy the way that Station F has.
We’ve advised a campus that’s being built in Japan, and we’re getting contacted quite a bit in the Gulf at the moment. There are similar projects around Europe that we’ve talked to as well, and in the US.
In terms of the campus we want to partner with, probably you won’t see us pop up in a tonne of countries. We’ll make a few very key decisions to go into places that really resemble this ecosystem — in terms of value, in terms of network. We need to say, "Okay, will our VCs be able to invest in that place? Will our partners be able to also come with us?" Something that has helped Station F a lot is having someone like Xavier behind it. A lot of similar projects are often run by governments, so we'll be looking a little bit at how credible those governments are.
And there’s also a Station F hotel in the works?
We've noticed that when a lot of people come to Paris, they're probably coming to Station F at some point to meet startups or to go to an event. But they're often staying on the opposite side of Paris. So we're building a hotel right next to us that will be open in two to three years. One half will be a five-star ecological hotel — we're working with somebody coming over from the US — and then we have a budget hotel also that we're exploring at the moment, so it should be catering to all audiences.
You began angel investing on the Atomico angel programme, and now you’re a Sequoia scout. What have been your biggest learnings as an angel investor?
When I first started with Atomico, I was lost. I was really hesitant: "How do I do this? Who do I pick? What are my reasons?" And Sophia Bendz, who was at Atomico at the time, came over to Paris and we had lunch and she was like, "You know what? Do small cheques, do them in a lot of companies. Just don't worry. If you're trying to put in a bigger cheque, you're going to overthink it." It was great advice that helped me jump over that hurdle.
For more, listen to the full podcast.