French tech: startup rankings, mega funding & early acquisitions

Roxanne Varza
Feb 11 · 5 min read

After several years (!) of near silence, I decided earlier this year that I would write a bit more often in 2020. However, I wasn’t quite sure what to write about for this post. Since the beginning of the year, quite a bit has happened, including:

I feel that all of these elements demonstrate very well how the French ecosystem is changing. So I guess I’ll comment on just about all of them.

French Tech 120, for better or for worse.

Let’s start with the announcement of the French Tech 120. This is a government initiative to support supposed high performance companies. I’m not the only one to have mixed feelings about this list. That said, I do think that if the government were not to have this type of initiative, the local ecosystem would be equally critical. I’ve often been impressed with the UK’s Future Fifty list — now entering it’s 8th (!) year — and wondered why we don’t have a French equivalent. Well, now we do. It’s in its early stages, and so I imagine we’ll see plenty of improvements in the years to come. If there is one change I’m already noticing, it’s with regards to recruitment; I’ve already been contacted by quite a few people that have told me they are joining a “French Tech 120” company, using it as a stamp of approval.

Females and families.

When people ask me how the European and French ecosystems differ from others, I often struggle to really pinpoint a clear difference. Perhaps the work-life balance? Yet, more recently, there seems to be a huge shift with regards to how France wants to be seen with respect to values — and especially diversity and family in the workplace. Last year, over 50 French VC funds agreed to increase funding in female-founded businesses to 25% by 2025 (I’m curious to see what exactly will change to make this happen). And continuing that trend, over 100 French companies have agreed to cover paternal or second-parent leave for new parents in an agreement signed last week. Now, I thought perhaps France was in the lead on this topic, especially as legal, paid maternity leave is 16 weeks, but in fact a lot of the big tech companies already provide extremely generous parental leave policies — even in the US. This move is nonetheless a huge step in the right direction and shows a growing trend in the overall ecosystem and not just a handful of top-tier companies.

The origins of mega funding.

Last year, the French startup ecosystem collectively raised around €5 billion in funding. France has been the European leader in terms of early stage funding and number of deals for a while now, but is only in the top 3 when it comes to funding volume (and is in 5th place with regards to late-stage funding). However, we’re now starting to see more and more mega rounds of funding.

In 2019, there were 5 startups to announce mega rounds of funding: Meero (€230m), Doctolib (€150m), ManoMano (€110m), Ynsect (€110m), and HR Path (€100m). In 2020, there have already been 4 companies to announce mega rounds, including 3 that took place in January: ManoMano (€125m), Qonto (€104m), Ecovadis (€200m) — and one so far in February (Kinéis, €100m). This has naturally impacted overall investment volume, which is reported to be somewhere around €600–800 million just for the month of January, more than double the amount raised in January 2019.

Other than flashy numbers, one aspect of these mega rounds that has caught some attention is the sources of financing — specifically from Asia. Both Qonto and ManoMano added new Asia-based investors to their new rounds of funding; Qonto with China-based Tencent and ManoMano with Singapore-based Temasek. Several journalists also pointed out that this was Tencent’s 2nd fintech investment in France in January. This also confirms the spike in the number of international investors interested in France that we’ve seen over the last year or so — though it’s hardly shocking to see foreign capital in late-stage financing.

TV: startup education for the masses.

The launch of TV show Qui veut être mon associé ?, effectively the French equivalent of Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den, also points to a bit of a cultural shift. For years I have heard people from within the ecosystem question when France would launch this type of program (perhaps as far back as 2011). From my discussions, it seemed almost as if this type of show is seen as a measure of ecosystem maturity — and proof that the general public understands and supports startup culture. But it wasn’t guaranteed that a program whereby startup entrepreneurs pitch investors for funding would appeal to a French audience. While the US or UK programs tend to put emphasis on competition between investors, it’s said that the French version attempts to portray investors more as business mentors (even the title of the show avoids the mention of predatory animals…). Probably a good idea.

A month into the show and some 1,7 million viewers are regularly tuning in. We’ve also had some Station F startups on the show, including anti-pollution mask makers R-Pur or Foodvisor. But how will this impact startups other than visibility and pocket change? Actually, it’s likely to give entrepreneurship itself more visibility and credibility. We already experienced a shift several years ago and multiple studies have confirmed that young graduates now prefer joining or starting companies. But how about the general public?

Too young to sell?

Now, I wanted to finish on a bit more of a personal note — this topic stems from a conversation I had with a guest at Station F. We are fortunate to host a number of incredible visitors and guests at Station F and we hosted serial entrepreneur and Lime President Joe Kraus in January (btw, Lime now has some of their team based at Station F). One of Joe’s main comments about the French ecosystem was that startups may be selling or getting acquired too early — and I have to say that to a certain extent, I agree. His own personal story, especially with Excite!, serves as a great example; turning down a $70 million deal to be acquired for $6 billion later on. Now what I found of particular interest was that Joe says the advice to turn down the $70 million offer came from his investor at the time, Vinod Khosla. And naturally this got me thinking that our local investors need to play a similar role if we don’t want to end up with dozens of mini acquisitions.

Psst: You can listen to the Station F Podcast featuring my discussion with Joe here.

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