London Needs A Station F

Tej Kohli advocates for the creation of a London equivalent of Paris-based incubator Station F, a 51,000 sqm former rail freight depot that is now the largest start-up incubator in the world.

London Needs A Station F

Tej Kohli is a technologist and investor whose Zibel Real Estate portfolio focuses on geographic clusters where rapid technological development and new technology wealth are causing transformation.  He is also founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation which is developing scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges.  Tej Kohli’s blog is #TejTalks and he is also the author of Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook.  Tej Kohli posts on Twitter as @MrTejKohli.

In the 13th arrondissement of Paris, a 51,000 sqm former rail freight depot is home to Station F, the largest start-up incubator in the world.  Opened in 2017, Station F is home to more than 1,000 start-up and early-stage businesses, as well as established technology leaders Facebook and Microsoft who form part of an ecosystem of innovation that supports more than 30 start-up programs.

French telecom billionaire Xavier Niel poured $285 million into the project, which is of such scale that it epitomises the Nelson Mandela adage that “it always seems impossible until it’s done”.  With 600 rooms scattered around its vast open spaces and more than 100 resident VC funds and 600 events each year, Station F is more of a small town than an enterprise incubator.  It is flanked by the biggest co-living space in Europe, with 600 bedrooms.

Station F in Paris

Station F has transformed the surrounding area, which has given way to restaurants and gyms and other facilities.  But more important is how Station F has enabled Paris, and indeed France, to manifest a tech renaissance that most cities can only dream of.  Now as the world looks to repair the economic damage of COVID-19, Station F is a shining beacon of what is possible through wilful cooperation between the technology and real estate sectors.

For confirmation that their built environment has a meaningful on technology businesses, we can look to Apple and Google in London.  Both technology titans clearly recognise the role of the built environment in fostering the serendipitous sparks of creativity that lead to technological innovations: they are respectively investing in a 500,000 sq ft new London HQ in Battersea Power station and a gargantuan ‘horizontal skyscraper’ at Kings Cross.  

Google's planned 'horizontal skyscraper' new London Headquarters

Canary Wharf Group, half of whose office tenants were in financial services in the pre-COVID world, have announced that they will be heavily targeting technology businesses in the future given the prospects of the sector, and expect that in the coming decades technology businesses will be their anchor tenants.

When I first invested in new large scale residential developments in Gurugram in India, the city had not long ago been an agricultural wasteland.  Now the population of the brand-new ‘technology city’ 32km outside of New Delhi is doubling every ten years as rich, well-educated urban professionals move in to work for the big tech firms who have set up in the brand-new city.  Every single square meter of it was financed entirely by the private sector.  And in Berlin, where my focus is on residential units, values have soared as the city has created a self-perpetuating network effect that is drawing in technology jobs and talent.

Gurugram in India has become a technology hub in less than a decade.

But more than anywhere else in Europe, it is Station F in Paris which shows us that it is entirely possible to build large-scale incubators that can give rise to future unicorns.  The incentive for real estate developers and investors is substantial: they could make huge gains by turning underdeveloped areas into flourishing new districts whose prosperity is anchored by large-scale incubators in the flattering style of Station F.  Technology companies would benefit from the thriving ecosystem of people and new ideas that come from human connection.  And politicians could boast thriving new districts that create lots of new jobs.

The accelerated technological progress and general disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely increase entrepreneurial activity as 2021 progresses, especially in the fertile technology sector, driving up the appetite for incubation.  In a post-COVID world every major city, especially London, will need a Station F.  Real estate investors like me would queue up to invest in a London Station F.

London has a thriving technology scene but does not yet have it's own Station F

So why does Station F still stand out as the exception rather than the rule?  Perhaps the missing link is pioneers like Xavier Niel who have the vision and the ability to underwrite large-scale partnerships between real estate and technology?  Or maybe it is simply that the worlds of real estate and technology continue to manifest on different existential plains?  Regardless, now that COVID has rendered the old playbook redundant, the real estate and tech sectors must quickly recognise that their future prospects are symbiotic - and learn to incubate them.

To find out more about Tej Kohli visit:

Tej Kohli's real estate portfolio

Tej Kohli’s blog

Tej Kohli on Twitter

Tej Kohli official website

Kohli Ventures official website

Tej Kohli Foundation official website