Does Paris need NUMA?

Jun 16, 2014
Vote on Hacker News

Paris Office Tour 1-13

Rue du Caire has never had so many startups passing through its passages and buildings. While historically there have always been small businesses occupying the Sentier district in Paris, it’s hard to call the boutique stores & seamstress shops ‘startups.’ Sentier was a logical fit for startups to call home – the neighborhood is home to France’s historical stock exchange, the Palais Brongniart – Internet companies cropped up quickly as early as the nineties, as the Euronext received preferential installation for high-speed internet access, which attracted companies looking to leech onto the network.

In 2008, when the Silicon Sentier opened the doors of its first space La Cantine, the region was already home to a few scattered startups. The association’s mission: create a community center for the digital community, and promote the expansion of startups in Paris. In 2010, it even opened up Paris’ first Accelerator, Le Camping, in the attic of Palais Brongniart, which has since been converted from stock exchange to event venue, underscoring how new tech is eating the old market.

The Sentier district looks quite different in 2014 – rue du Sentier alone is home to dozens of startups, backed by venture capital from an increasing number of local and foreign investors, and, while the district is still the defacto ‘heart’ of the Paris startup scene, it can no longer be considered the ‘Center.’ Silicon Sentier consolidated its two flagship Paris spaces, La Cantine & LeCamping, into one space — NUMA — last year, in a move I assume was done in the hope of reinforcing its role as the heart of the Paris Startup Scene.

However, NUMA’s grip on the Paris startup scene has been slipping – its finger is no longer on the pulse of the ecosystem, one could claim – namely because, today, Paris’ startup scene has outgrown a single heart.

Today it contains several:

  • Rue du Sentier: the traditional hub, home to the likes of Commerce Guys, eFounders, Jolicloud, as well as communities like NUMA, Microsoft Spark, Le 39 & La Maison du Bitcoin
  • Rue de Londres/Rue Malesherbes: Google’s Rue de Londres Paris office, which opened in 2012, quickly saw startups like Deezer, Criteo & Blablacar grow up around it. Up the street, rue Malesherbes is home to Dailymotion, and has recently seen Facebook & others move into the neighborhood.
  • Issy Les Moulineaux: a traditional home to Microsoft, Bouygues Telecom, France24 & others just outside of the Paris borders (and taxes), Issy Les Moulineaux and Boulogne-Billancourt have welcomed thriving startups like Withings, Sculpteo, Audioffice & eDJing.

Other ‘hotspots’ are prepped to pop up – Xavier Niel’s 1000 Startups project, for example.

Paris doesn’t need the Silicon Sentier anymore

One thing is clear: Paris has outgrown Silicon Sentier. The association pre-empted this by re-branding to NUMA, a move which has been very unclear in the eyes of the community; however, make no mistake: Silicon Sentier is dead, and NUMA has taken its place. What Silicon Sentier was is no longer needed, and the Paris Startup Ecosystem has expelled it from its body; however, what remains to be seen is whether NUMA, whatever that is (a portmanteau of numerique and humain, I’m told) will find its place in Paris.

What is NUMA?

NUMA has undergone a multi-year process to free itself from public subsidies – currently more than half of its budget is paid for by private sponsors like Google, as well as revenue from projects and services offered to corporations; however, where its budget comes from doesn’t seem to be the burning question, but rather: how will NUMA survive in the future?

In an interview earlier this month, Managing Director Marie-Vorgan Le Barzic, who has been at the helm of the association since its origins, admitted that, as it currently stands, NUMA can not go on operating indefinitely.

From an outside perspective, NUMA appears to be torn between its origins as an association, providing a community space for the digital ecosystem, and its private initiatives, like accelerator LeCamping, which recently announced it would be taking 3% equity in startups who go through the accelerator’s sixth season. Other projects, such as their efforts to convert 22,000m² of the Sentier neighborhood around NUMA into real estate available for tech companies and digital initiatives, as well as their work with non-digital companies like Airbus to embrace digital within their company, suggest that the company might be able to hold its own as a private company.

NUMA is at a crossroads

Yet NUMA, remains an association, one which is torn between two missions: that of a private company, whose revenue relies on the ability to foster and grow companies to be global leaders. And that of an association, whose mission is to foster community and create a go-to place for anyone looking to take the leap into startups. The two, unfortunately, are not compatible, and NUMA must let go of the latter if it wishes to embrace the former.

What exactly does becoming a private company entail for NUMA? For starters, it means its coworking space needs to transform from a place for freelancers and ‘side-project-ers’ to a place where startup founders come to hash out ideas into tangible products. It means that LeCamping needs to become a VC – because, don’t let the seasons and community fool you, an accelerator is nothing more than the logical progression of Venture Capital – which means staffing up with new people who can help companies grow, raise funds, and do more than pitch. Lastly, it means that all of the association’s sponsors & members must become customers, clients, partners or investors.

Alternatively, NUMA can double down on its roots. Team up with France Digitale, push for startup advocacy, and continue the reputation it’s built within the public sector for being a go-between for politicians/corporations & startups.

NUMA is at an inflection point – a fork in the road – and the longer it waits, the longer it suffers. Startups no longer know what NUMA is, how to describe it. The combined rebranding and moving spaces did more harm than anyone expected to the brand, and today, NUMA has lost its international visibility (LeCamping used to be seen as the go-to Accelerator, a title replaced by TheFamily in the past year).

So, does Paris need NUMA? Well, that all depends on what NUMA is. And what NUMA is, as far as I can tell, is currently up in the air.