Inside HEC Paris’ Incubator At ‘Station F’

The HEC incubator in Station F is a tailored, à la carte, and participative startup support program. The school’s ambition “is to make entrepreneurs.” HEC Paris photo

What do people want to do once they’ve left business school? It’s true that many want a steady job in a corporation, but MBAs and MiM graduates increasingly dream of being the next Jack Dorsey or Elon Musk. Entrepreneurship is all the rage, and that’s not just for those with an eye on Silicon Valley; Europe has caught the bug, too. Last year 17% of graduates from Imperial College Business School in London started their own businesses. At Barcelona’s ESADE, you can take an MSc in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. At Madrid’s IE, MBAs spend a whole term working on a start-up idea. These days, even MBA graduates who do go into steady, salaried jobs often only do so until they have paid off their debts, at which point they hope to take the plunge and start their own business.

In fact, there is no longer a hard divide between entrepreneurship and corporate life. Increasingly, recruiters are looking for “intrapreneurs,” those who can bring the fleet-footed, creative approach of a startup into the staid, disruptible world of established businesses. The more forward-looking see business school graduates whose startups have failed as desirable employees who have learned from the school of hard knocks. Some recruiters now even offer graduates an open-ended job offer for several years, allowing them to start a business with the backstop of a job if their new venture goes belly-up.

Ambitious business school students in Europe, then, would be well advised to look for schools that are embedded in the startup scene. Several are, especially those that are connected to tech hubs (see below). Perhaps the most impressive incubator in Europe at the moment is Station F, a cavernous, 34,000-square-meter former railway station that was recently transformed into a cutting-edge incubator at the expense of Xavier Niel, one of France’s richest men who spent €250 million ($286.5 million) creating it.


Antoine Lepretre, manager of the HEC Paris incubator at Station F. HEC Paris photo

Station F opened in 2017. It has 3,000 desks, which allows up to 1,000 startups to work there. It has all the trappings of the tech startup, with people lounging on beanbags, taking meets in white pods, and a Lego-themed meetings room; one room has printers (2D and 3D), there’s a post office, and it even has a special office that helps businesses deal with red tape. There’s a quiet hum of industry coming from young people clacking away at laptops emblazoned with Station F stickers. There are plans to open a 600-person co-living space for incubees in three towers nearby.

Facebook and Amazon have their own incubators at Station F, as does the HEC business school. HEC’s influence can be seen everywhere. The furniture is from, which was set up by HEC alumni, as was the swanky restaurant Big Mama, Europe’s biggest and possibly most spectacular eatery where you can dine inside artfully graffitied railway carriages.

HEC’s incubator is run by Antoine Lepretre, a master’s graduate from the school who worked in three startups himself before he was lured into Station F. So why is HEC so keen to be involved? “The mission for us is to increase the number of entrepreneurs,” Lepretre says. “If they fail doing entrepreneurship they have a really good profile for corporates to become intrapreneurs. Businesses are looking for young graduates who can change organizations from the inside.” Being in the incubator — or accelerator, if you prefer — helps them develop faster because they grow their networks and contacts, develop their style of management, and generally develop more quickly, Lepretre says.

HEC said yes “immediately” when approached, he says; the school currently has 60 businesses in its incubator. Being involved helps HEC in three main ways. First, it helps for teaching in new and interesting ways; rather than giving students dusty case studies to read, HEC can teach about the problems real, growing businesses are facing, and students can learn from the people working in them. Second, helping students to become entrepreneurs gives the school greater visibility; simply put, having HEC grads creating successful businesses makes the school look good. Finally, the school hopes that nurturing entrepreneurs to be successful means they will give back later in terms of time and money, something that traditionally happens more at American universities than Europe ones.


What do the incubees themselves get out of being part of an accelerator? “We were looking for e-commerce mentoring,” says Achille Gazagnes, co-founder of shoe brand Caval, which has sold €350,000 of shoe in its first year and plans to sell in five European countries next year. Cheap desk space is also a benefit. At €200 per desk per month, Station F is half the price of other incubators in Paris, says Arthur Barillas of Ovrsea, which digitizes the freight-forwarding process — and which in just over a year has gained 50 clients from 10 countries. “The Internet is good, it’s light, there are meeting rooms, it’s great value for money,” Barillas says. “Also because there are so many startups, being here makes recruiting developers and software engineers easier.”

Emilie Korchia, founder of Myjobglasses, which helps students find good jobs by connecting them with professionals who give them career advice, says that Station F has given her company access to lots of experts, such as legal or UX consultants, who incubees can use for free. “The location itself helps too,” Korchia says. “Clients are curious to come and see Station F, they are happy to come here and that buys us a lot of time because we don’t have to go to them.” Others point out that Station F is super-efficient: a new member’s Internet and desk can be set up in five minutes. Just being part of the incubator immediately gives a startup credibility too: others say that HEC and Station F’s connections allowed them to raise funds in three months that they thought would take nine.

What makes a good incubator? It’s all about leveraging networks and increasing the numbers of interactions between people in the startups, visiting experts, journalists, VCs, and others, Lepretre says. Some of the good things that happen are planned, but many are a result of “serendipity,” he says. That said, success isn’t just about throwing things into the mix and hoping something happens. Even serendipity can be encouraged. Currently HEC says they are creating 200 interactions of various sorts per week, but they want to increase that, not least by bringing all their 4,000 students in to experience Station F. The long-term plan is to set up other incubators on the same model in other cities around the world.

“There is a lot more we can do,” Lepretre says.


Other non-U.S. business schools connected to incubators:

ESMT, Berlin, Germany

Unsurprisingly, as it is based in the startup hub of Berlin, ESMT business school has a vibrant tech startup community on its campus and an incubator called Techstars, which claims to be the “fastest growing startup ecosystem in the world.” Techstars has nurtured over 1,500 businesses that have raised over $6 billion; 86% of them have been bought. Every year 300 businesses are chosen for its three-month accelerator program. ESMT and its alumni co-own one of the biggest co-working spaces in Germany, called Space Shack.

JUDGE Business School, Cambridge, UK

Accelerate Cambridge helps businesses that grow out of the University of Cambridge, which are often a combinations of researchers and business school students or alumni who help them commercialize their ideas. Being at the center of the “Silicon Fen” tech hub, these often have a technology or computing slant.

Rotman, Toronto, Canada

The Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman is a seed-stage program for “massively scalable, science-based companies” with a focus on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, clean tech and health. Companies that have participated in Creative Destruction Lab projects — which now exist in several other Canadian cities — have created more than $3 billion in equity value.

NEOMA, Reims, France

Created in 2013 from the merging of Rouen Business School and Reims Management School, NEOMA in Reims has two accelerator programs targeted at very specific industries. The first is in logistics based in the port of Reims, which encourages businesses in the shipping and transport business. The second is in the edtech space, in which NEOMA is particularly active.


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