If you ask a passerby about France, you are likely to get bombarded with clichés — you’ll get the wine, the cheese and the baguette thrown back at you within 30 seconds. If you’re lucky, you may get something on Camus or Baudelaire (but then you have really lucked out, so do pinch yourself). French tech is probably the last thing that would come up in the conversation. This, though, has been quietly, and rapidly, changing — the tech scene in France is gaining massive traction.
Now, it would be untrue to say that this is a completely new trend and that tech investors have entirely neglected France. Many, like ourselves, have been a fixture at the (sadly defunct) LeWeb, we invested in early French startups like Seesmic and Jolicloud, were avid readers of Rude Baguette (and its author’s subsequent thoughts and insights), and its predecessor Tech Baguette. After all, the first institutional round of Criteo was over 10 years ago. What has really changed, though, is the rate of change. France is rapidly entering an acceleration. So watch your backs, Silicon Valley, Sentier is after you!
Conscious of the accelerating pace of change in France, which we first flagged publicly in our 2016 State of European Tech Report, a large portion of the Atomico team headed to Paris last week to meet the with start-ups, investors and the wider founder and tech community.
Have we seen a tipping point, a déclic? The indications are clear. France is now challenging the UK as an investment destination, having surpassed Germany for the first time in years. $2.7 billion was invested in France in 2016, up 63% on the previous year, vs $2.1bn raised by German start-ups in the same period and $3.7bn invested in the UK. With €472m already put to work across 169 rounds to date (according to Dealroom.co), 2017 is looking good. I, for one, tend to think that although the pace of change is accelerating, conditions for it have been fertilizing the French soil for a number of years. Below are some of the reasons I think the time is now ripe for French entrepreneurs to take centre stage.
Early-stage actors drive change in education and culture
- One of the underlying factors is the growing desire amongst young French people to engage in entrepreneurial activity. Students from France’s world-leading business schools are now choosing tech over other job options: 19% of graduates go into technology at INSEAD and likewise at HEC. One third of French students (according to KPMG data) now state that they would like to either found or join a startup. And an increasing number are also willing to do so on home turf (74% according to Atomico’s State of European Tech report), as start-up costs for business have fallen rapidly: infrastructure start-up costs alone have declined from ~$5M in the 1990s to less than $100k today (and that’s without various deals and sweeteners offered by a majority of accelerators/incubators)
- Such change is not without cause. Privileged to have experienced four education systems, I have always felt that, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon school, the French education centred around expertise in subject matter and the passing of the ‘chalice’ of knowledge from the elder to the younger as opposed to ‘Academy’-style dialogue. Achieving a perfect grade was hard (read impossible) and yet failure was frowned upon. Traditional career paths were the only measure of success. To make entrepreneurship the “new normal”, outside of the traditional Juniors Enterprises (school-run business consultancies; though the one run by Sciences Po is still dear to my heart) and the university incubators, one had to be inspired but also to understand that “failing fast” was totally OK and, in fact, encouraged in the iteration process of a start-up looking for a product-market fit
- This is where early stage actors have been instrumental. Prior to revealing the very grand (and inspirational) Station F that will host 1,000 start-ups as well as Facebook, Roxanne Varza worked on FailCon — a conference celebrating failure and its learnings. Oussama Ammar at The Family has claimed a number of times that “Europe is toxic”, while equally popularising the idea that, despite that very fact, the show must go on and then you can always join their Lion school for entrepreneurship should things not go right. And let’s not forget Niel’s 42 (free coding program) or Kima’s No MBA (you get paid to learn!), each of which is serving to democratise and open the ecosystem to new actors
- The international angle here is also important. StationF’s selection committee unites continents thanks to Marwan’s efforts, The Family expanded to London and Berlin, 42 to SF and Numa just held it first demo day in London, presenting start-ups from France, Russia, Italy and Spain. Even UK’s Techstars is opening a French outfit in September. As early stage goes global, so do the ambitions of French entrepreneurs — and international capital has followed, with Benchmark, USV, Lightspeed and Insight having all done at least one deal in France. Serena here does a great job of pointing out investors outside of France paying attention in every last round over €1M
- The early stage movement is helping orchestrate a cultural shift: it is now OK to fail, it is cool to be a founder, and starting in Paris or Toulouse does not hamper global ambition. Little shifts in mentality have been yielding big results
The French talent pool is deep
- Increased entrepreneurial drive is complemented by a readily-available talent pool
- Paris has over 134,000 professional developers, the second highest in Europe behind London (300,000). 40% of these have at least 6 years of experience — still a little behind the UK (53%) and Germany (51%), but far ahead of any other European country in terms of academic credentials, as 43% of these also possess an MSc in Computer Science
- Academia is an important part of the equation, as France is also where tech meets hard sciences. For Paris, and France more broadly, AI and machine learning could be promising areas of specialism — after all, Facebook opened its AI research centre in Paris in 2015 (its first outside of the US), and back in 2013 hired French native Yann LeCun to lead its AI research. Rakuten and Google both also have research centres in Paris, and there’s a strong academic background in the field, with both education and research well-represented through the likes of École Polytechnique, ENS, TelecomParisTech, UPMC, Centrale, CNRS, Inria or Limsi
- Within France, there are now at least 180 AI startups, according to data compiled by ISAI. In keeping with that trend, I have also counted at least 6 early stage exits to the big US tech giants — Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Facebook. Out of the 53 that occurred since 2011: Sparrow (2012), Flexycore (2013), Capptain (2014), SyntaxTree (2014), Colis Privé* (2016) and Moodstocks (2016). You could stretch this to 7, if you count Sunrise (2015) — not that small of a number
- As ecosystem grows, its vibrancy is partially measured by talent’s interconnectivity and its equally-vibrant social ecosystem. To that extent, Paris boasts one of the largest meetup groups in AI, the Paris Machine Learning Group, and some of the largest open source code libraries for AI, such as SciKit Learn. Loic, in the meantime is bringing Silicon Valley to Paris in April
- It’s no surprise that this is acting like flypaper for international talent: France is the third largest European destination for international tech migrants, topped only by the UK and Germany. 11% of Non-European migratory tech talent and 8% of Europeans now cite France as their top destination
Capital abundance fuels grander ambitions
- The increase in the amount of available local capital is also drawing attention. When at its best and spread across stages (with an appropriate valuation tag at each) more capital = better funded and larger start-ups = better potential outcomes for everyone involved
- The number of new funds which raised chunky amounts in France is unprecedented, with Daphni (€150m+) and Korelya (€100m) being two notable examples
- Those who have been around the block are also not far behind — Alven Capital closed €250m while Partech Ventures and IdInvest have dedicated pockets of capital across stages, and Partech is hosting Techstars at Partech Shaker. Ventech has even raised a third China-focused fund, in line with global ambitions of the ecosystem. Many VC firms have funds of an older vintage, so one could expect additional new fund announcements in the near future. XAnge’s Bartosz has a few more interesting thoughts on this here
- The corporates have also “awakened”, participating in 21% of French deals in Q3 2016, according to CB Insights. They are increasingly LPs in a number of VC funds but are also setting up dedicated funds — Orange, MAIF, AXA, Microsoft, Credit Agricole, Airbus, SNCF and Renault Nissan are amongst a few. The involvement of French industrial giants is higher than in many European countries: there are more French corporates (13) with “innovation outposts” in Silicon Valley than from any other European country except Germany (15), and many more than the UK (5), according to MindTheBridge. Speaking of Orange, Bilal goes into detail on the role of the corporates and CVCs here
The state of the State
- One hopes that the days of the ‘Pigeons’ movement are long gone, and that there is instead a push towards embracing all things digital (and a fiscal policy that supports this…). Although I am waiting with baited breath as the April elections draw closer, a number of candidates are now ‘talking tech’, as the system has become more aware of the challenges and opportunities presented by digital disruption. Some notable figures, like Fleur Pellerin, have even moved to the other side of the table, creating a new pocket of capital in Korelya
- The French tech scene is also seeing continued investment appetite and activity from public sources: BPI is one of the most active investors in France and in Europe overall, having completed 110 new investments in France in 2016, according to CB Insights
- Created in 2013 and propelled by the government, ‘#FrenchTech’ is aiming to create a “snowball effect”, communicating around entrepreneurship in France and abroad (internationally this time on the initiative of Axelle Lemaire), but also financing accelerators and local tech hubs with the help of BPI and Business France. French tech was the largest international community at CES in Vegas, a sign of new dynamism
- Last but not the least, France Digitale, the heart of French VCs and start-ups, continues to lobby on the behalf of the ecosystem. It certainly saw the departure of a few members, so I am excited to see what the new ones have in store (shout-out to old classmate, Nicolas Brien, who recently joined the ranks as the Campaign Director, replacing Matthieu Daix moving on to Daphni)
- There is still a lot of progress to be made, whether on admin or labour laws, but according to the World Bank it has never been easier to set up a company in France: 4 days vs. 4.5 in the UK and 10.5 in Germany. Small wins which could have big effects
The Virtuous Cycle
- The most inspiring entrepreneurs are those who have not only created great companies, but also those who support the new generation of entrepreneurs looking to do the same. And France has no shortage of these. There are of course the early leaders, including the inspirational names like Xavier Niel (Free), Fabrice Grinda (Aucland, Zingy), Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet ( PriceMinister.com), Oleg Tscheltzoff (Fotolia), Jacques Antoine Granjon (Vente Privé), Jean-David Blanc (AlloCine, Molotov TV), Thierry Petit (Showroom Privé) or Jean-Baptiste Rudelle (Criteo). There are also the ‘new kids on the block’: Frédéric Mazzella et Nicolas Brusson (BlaBlacar), or Daniel Marhely and Jonathan Benassaya (Deezer). This list goes on and on and is by no means exhaustive, as Challenges have shown us — this is just a tip of an iceberg. I think symbolism is an inherent part of French culture and, in the same way la République needs its Marianne, French tech has been in part fuelled by the inspiration of its many spokespeople — The Economist goes as far as to call it a “The Niel Effect”
- Success breeds success. As the ecosystem becomes more developed, we’re seeing growth in ‘founder-funder’ activity, with founders who’ve enjoyed success increasingly reinvesting capital and efforts into the ecosystem in an angel capacity. For Europe as a whole, our research found 44% of experienced entrepreneurs that have achieved some success are already actively investing as angels into next generation. Others have formalised their efforts, joining or creating VC funds like Kima (Xavier Niel), ISAI (PKM) or Elaia (Marc Rougier). Initiatives go beyond funding, such as the founder-led think tank Galion Project which is working on (among many other things) trying to standardise a termsheet — you have to #payitforward (a wink to Jean DLR here).
- And this is truly when the “loop” truly closes, and a virtuous cycle is created
With all the above in mind, we are certainly excited about #FrenchTech. I think it is unlikely that we will see the emergence of any single European city as the leader for “all things tech”. Far more likely is the emergence of ‘Centres of Excellence’ in Paris, London, Berlin, Stockholm and others, each of them with unique strengths in particular fields. One thing is certain though: Paris is now firmly on the European tech map.
Note: Few names of various tech actors above do not by any means constitute an exhaustive list, which would certainly take numerous pages given the buoyancy and vibrancy of the current ecosystem! We could not be more enthusiastic to have so many exciting examples to pick from.
*Amazon did not exercise the option to purchase the remaining 75% of Colis Privé (many thanks to emndn for pointing out).