A sampling of start-ups enrolled in Station F disclosed a wide variety of companies. Manant Maheshwari's company, GuestReady, is one of 200 selected for Station F's Founders Program. The London-based start-up by two Swiss, a Brit and a Frenchman, acts as a concierge for short-term rentals such as those listed on Airbnb. Maheshwari, the global marketing manager, says his company will clean up, change the linen and meet arriving and departing guests. The company raised $750,000 last November from the Swiss Founders Fund.
If the synergy at Station F works as it should, Manant will eventually meet Timothée Maucor of MyLoby, which is a French start-up setting up a digital lockbox system for storing keys in bars, restaurants and stores. A user could leave a spare key in case of an emergency or for a guest. Users verify their identity and open the lockbox using a mobile app.
Not all the start-ups at Station F are digital technology companies. Shirley Billot's Kadalys makes natural organic cosmetics using banana peels she acquires in quantity from her native Martinique in the French Caribbean. Blakata, founded by Elounda Mayabouti, manages shipments of parcels from France to West Africa.
For years France had a reputation for starting companies but not being able to grow them big enough to exit. "The reality is the French don't know how to do sales and marketing," says venture capitalist Rodrigo Sepulveda Schulz, managing partner at Luxembourg-based Expon Capital. "They prefer to focus on the product. It's part of the culture."
But he concedes that is changing, and Station F could help. It could be the French equivalent to University Avenue in Palo Alto, which unites start-ups with VCs and consultants. French unicorns (valued at $1 billion or more) are emerging, such as BlaBlaCar, a long-distance carpooling service; OVH, a cloud storage and hosting service that raised 400 euro million in debt financing last month and Devialet, a maker of high-end speakers that recently raised $100 million from investors, including hip-hop mogul Jay Z.
For years one of the great French success stories was Business Objects, a business analytics software company acquired by SAP for $6.8 billion in 2008. Another was games publisher Ubisoft, a publicly traded company that is currently trying to fend off a takeover by Vivendi.
If Station F helps companies grow, more French start-ups could join the pantheon of successful exits.
— By Joel Dreyfuss, special to CNBC.com