Facebook bets on Paris with start-up incubator

PARIS (Reuters) - Facebook gave the French tech scene a vote of confidence on Tuesday by picking Paris as the location for its first start-ups incubator, a boost for the city as European capitals compete to attract firms post-Brexit.

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The U.S. social media group said it would set up the scheme at the Station F site on the Left Bank - an ambitious project backed by French billionaire Xavier Niel and set to become the world’s largest start-up campus when it opens in April.

“Paris has always been a city of new ideas where people come together to break new ground, to do new things,” Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told reporters at the vast, listed former railway depot still under renovation.

The 34,000-square meter site, a stone’s throw away from the river Seine, plans to house 1,000 start-ups under its 1920s glass arcades, as well as 3-D printing labs and bars and restaurants open 24 hours a day.

Niel, who founded France’s Iliad telecom company, invested 250 million euros ($268 million) in the project and expects to break even within three years.

Facebook’s own project, dubbed a “startup garage”, will provide 80 desk and working spaces for up to 15 start-ups working on data mining, which will be coached by Facebook specialists for periods of six months.

It is Facebook’s second major investment in Paris after it opened its only European artificial intelligence research lab in the city in 2015.

A vibrant French technology scene - with emerging global champions such as BlaBlaCar and Sigfox - is one of the ruling Socialist government’s rare success stories on the economic front.

A generous research and development tax credit, an active public investment bank and a large pool of engineers have helped boost the French tech sector, keeping Paris hot on the heels of other major European tech hubs such as London and Berlin.

French start-ups, however, have so far struggled to reach a critical size or remain independent.

Some such as online advertising firm Criteo have decided to list in the United States while others were snapped up by large multinationals, connected objects maker Withings’s acquisition by Nokia being the latest example.

Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Susan Fenton