How to choose a start-up incubator with confidence?

How do you select the incubator(s) to support you in your business project?

Incubators and other support solutions for managers are increasingly numerous, but their multiplicity and diversity sometimes make the choice difficult. How do you choose the right one?

According to a Roland Berger study, there were 560 accelerators and incubators worldwide in 2009, compared to 2,616 at the end of 2018. The profusion of offerings makes the market increasingly complex for young leaders who struggle to find their way around. Rest assured, you’re in the right place.

Here, we give you some keys to orient your research and help you find the right incubator for your start-up. We have also compiled a list of French startup incubators. 

Incubators: role and utility

Before going into the offers and programs of incubation, let’s quickly review the role of incubators in the development of your company.

An incubator is a structure that supports entrepreneurs in the creation or development of their business, especially during the first months or years of activity. Incubators, in addition to a work space, offer a wide range of resources :

  • coaching on the design of the business model
  • coaching
  • training
  • experts
  • material
  • network (investors, partners, …), etc.

Being a member of such a structure allows you to gain credibility and visibility on the market, but also to take advantage of an existing network to become an entrepreneur & develop your business more quickly. Incubators aim to accompany you from the idea to the project, and then to transform this innovative project into a profitable and successful business.

In addition to these various advantages of joining an incubator, this option also helps fight against the isolation of young entrepreneurs. In addition to imposing a framework and a work rhythm, you can exchange with other entrepreneurs who are going through the same experiences and difficulties, who can help you keep the momentum going and share their resources. You are not alone at your desk, in front of your blank sheet of paper, you can confront your ideas and quickly get the first constructive feedback to make your project evolve.

The creation of incubators was driven by the law on innovation, which was born to encourage and facilitate the exchange of scientific discoveries between the public and private sectors. Following this dynamic, new structures called incubators were created to encourage innovation and business creation, and thus develop the country’s economy and our influence abroad. This strategy is working, since in 2018 we counted 100,000 additional business creations compared to 2017, i.e. 691,300 businesses created in 2018.


Startup incubators: 4 main categories

We are wearing our Startup Nation status well with our more than 10,000 startups, and a forecast of 13,000 startups by 2022. In fact, 15.7% of the French population declare that they intend to found a company in the next three years.

To support these ambitious projects, France is one of the countries in Europe with the most incubators: a trend that is not about to run out of steam as we recorded a 12.5% increase in incubators in 2018 to reach the number of 270 structures in the territory.

All these incubators have more or less varied and specific functions. To find your way around, we classify them into four most represented categories:

  • Public incubators. Public incubators are supported by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation. Public incubators give you access to different resources
  • access to public research laboratories
    support on different aspects such as management, strategy, finance and accounting, intellectual/industrial property, etc.
  • personalized coaching
  • assistance in building the business model
    financing of external services (experts, etc.)
  • training of the manager and help in building the future team
  • the possibility of accommodation and the provision of office space and equipment

Entrepreneurs are supported for an average of 24 months, up to the creation of the company and sometimes during the first months of activity.

To join them, entrepreneurs must present a recognized innovation or have won a national business creation competition.

There are 21 public incubators in France and two SATTs (Société d’Accélération du Transfert de Technologies) financed by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation. The two SATTs are Pulsalys in Lyon and Linksium in Grenoble. As a general rule, public incubators are multi-specialists and operate in different sectors of activity, but three have specialized:

  • Paris Biotech Santé (Paris)
  • Eurasanté (Nord-Pas-de-Calais)
  • Belle-de-Mai (Marseille), which supports projects in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

In 2018, 31% of incubated projects were in the Life Sciences, 37% in ICT, 28% for Engineering Sciences and 4% for Humanities and Social Sciences.

These incubators are often attached to universities, schools or research organizations. You can find all the important information, including the contact details of the incubators, on the Ministry’s website .

  • Business incubators. These internal structures of large industrial or technological groups are developed to encourage the emergence of innovations, and thus to respond quickly to new demands, to the market economy, but also to remain competitive, and thus to develop and perpetuate the company’s activities. Unlike public incubators, which mainly support the first part of a company’s creation, business incubators welcome more mature projects and start-ups, which can have a short-term impact on the company’s activity and perform more quickly.

For example, you can discover Orange’s business development program, the Orange Fab;

or Sanofi’s, the 39BIS;

or even Renault’s one, the Open Innovation Lab Paris;

and even that of Crédit Agricole, the Village by CA.

More and more large groups are developing their own internal incubators to capture entrepreneurs and innovations at the source, but it is difficult to list them precisely.

In general, all large French companies have their own internal incubator and if you are interested in this option, we advise you to do your research based on your sector of activity, then to look at which large companies in your sector have a structure for supporting or accelerating start-ups, and finally to go directly to their website to find out about the eligibility criteria and the dates of the various programs for applying.

Companies don’t communicate much about their internal innovations and often recruit their employees to lead new projects, so you’ll need to keep a regular watch and stay alert to calls for projects, which are more frequent in business incubators. You can find the list of competitions on the website Les Echos Entrepreneurs or on our page dedicated to the calls for projects for the year 2020.

  • Private incubators attached to the grandes écoles. HEC, ESSEC, ESCP, Polytechnic engineering schools, and others, also offer their support program to entrepreneurs, students in their school. They are similar to public incubators and offer the same services such as access to premises, training, coaching, etc. But these incubators are especially known for their very rich network of partners and potential investors, which offers many opportunities, and allows students to evolve in a solid and sustainable ecosystem.
  • Les Pionnières. The Pionnières network, which became Les Premières in 2017, is the first network of incubators dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in France, including in the French overseas departments and territories, and is expanding internationally, to Benelux and Morocco. The network of incubators supports “innovative projects with a strong social impact to create value and sustainable jobs”. With over twenty incubators throughout France, in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon, etc., you are sure to find what you are looking for near you. Les Premières regularly issues calls for projects, but you can also apply for their various support programs. Les Premières offers three support programs:
  • START: Introduction to entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship
  • GO: create and lead an entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial project
  • BOOST: conquering your market, expanding in France and internationally

To find all the information, just click here: ici : https://www.wikilespremieres.com/fr

Top 6 incubators in Paris

You want more? You can find our report on the main incubators in France.

Warning : 1/3 of the incubators are in Paris. So if you are in Paris, or if you are ready to consider moving there, here are the top 6 incubators in the French capital :

  • Station F (Hall Freyssinet) at 5 parvis Alan-Turing, 75013 Paris. It is the largest incubator in the world, no less. 34,000 square meters, 3,000 coworking spaces, a bar, a restaurant, a café and more than 30 support programs, all open 24/7. Station F is in partnership with major companies such as L’Oréal, TF1 or Ubisoft. You will find programs run by Facebook, Addidas, LVMH, Microsoft, BNP Paribas, etc., on a wide variety of themes; not forgetting their two programs, Founders Program (205 euros/month) and Fighters Program (free). Go to leur site for more information and to register for programs.
  • Day one at 13 rue de Marivaux, 75002 Paris. Day One supports start-ups on operational, strategic, financial and human aspects, but above all they invest in the company from the start-up phase of the activity, up to one million euros. They define themselves as “entrepreneur-investors”. They are known for their mentors and renowned partners: Jaina, Partech, Catherine Barba, Gilles Babinet, etc. Find all the information and the application form on their website.
  • The Family at 25 rue du Petit-Musc, 75004 Paris. The Family is an investment company, founded by Oussama Ammar, which takes a 3% stake in start-ups. In exchange, the start-ups have access to three things: unfair advantages, education and capital. The unfair advantages are free services negotiated with major digital players such as Amazon, Facebook, Paypal, etc. Their KOUDETAT program trains you for the entrepreneurial adventure, they facilitate the fundraising process and give you access to their network and their own funds. To find all the info and contact them, click here.
  • Paris&Co at 157 boulevard Macdonald, 75019 Paris. Paris&Co is the largest network of incubators in Europe, specializing in 12 innovation sectors, from tourism, through fintech, to food. They have developed three support programs adapted to the maturity of the project: acceleration (5 months), bootstrapping (12 months), takeoff (24 months). Note that by joining a Paris&Co seed program, you benefit from the support of the City of Paris and are eligible for the Paris Innovation Seed Fund (up to €30,000 in grants). The seed and start-up program costs 12,000 euros per year. To find all the information and to apply it is here.
  • 104 Factory at 5 rue Curial, 75019 Paris. 104 Factory helps start-ups to finance their project (putting together a financing application, putting them in touch with a network of investors). They give them access to collective or individual work spaces, conference rooms, a showroom, there are two restaurants, a pizza truck, lunch spaces, a kitchen, etc. You will follow a specialized program and trainings, and finally you will be able to increase your visibility thanks to the international events organized every year. The incubation package is 1000 euros (excl. VAT) per month for the provision of a space of 4 to 6 workstations in open space and all the support offers. For more information, visit their website.
  • Numa is located at 39 rue du Caire, 75002 Paris. Numa’s offer is based on three pillars:
  1. Activate, an intra-company coaching course to develop your work culture ;
  2. Mentors, an inter-company mentoring program to develop managerial skills ;
  3. Accelerate, a coaching program for intrapreneurs.

They offer training to increase your entrepreneurial and managerial skills, but also in design thinking and digital marketing. They have the French Tech label and are known for their large network of partners (from AirFrance to Twitter) and investors or business angels. In exchange for all these resources, Numa owns 3.5% of the capital of their start-ups. To learn more about the company : https://www.numa.co/fr?referrer_name=/fr

Incubator: A must for startups? What are the alternatives?

Now that you know more about the incubator ecosystem in France, maybe you’re still wondering if this option really fits your needs?

Following an incubation program is not a guarantee of success for your project. Although you may be very well surrounded and in an environment favorable to the development of ideas and innovations, it is the market that will allow you, or not, to reach your goals. First of all, you will have to convince your future customers to buy your products or services.

To design these products or services, and capture your customers, you will need to gather certain resources, certain skills, certain financial means, etc. If the easiest and safest (least risky) way to gather what you need to develop your business is to go through an incubation program, because they have the network, the equipment, the financial means, the knowledge, etc., that you need, then go for it!

But if you are not dependent on their resources, if you can find the same thing without going through an incubator, it doesn’t mean you won’t succeed! Set your goals, ask yourself what resources you need to achieve them, and find out the easiest and fastest way to gather those resources.

If a support structure such as an incubator offers you the opportunity to save time, money, skills, etc., do it, but don’t force yourself to do it because everyone tells you it’s the miracle recipe for success, it’s not.

The miracle recipe for success is a balanced mix of your ability to perceive opportunities and your ability to capture them, not your ability to follow an incubation program. 50% of your success is related to the project owner and the other 50% is market specific.

You can choose to join an incubator to better understand your market or to develop your entrepreneurial skills, or both, but if you know your market, have mastered business creation, or have the means to go out and find these resources on your own, don’t waste time, money, or shares of your capital applying to one of their programs.

Entrepreneurship is also about being able to take a step back from yourself and take stock of your strengths and weaknesses to know where you need to surround yourself with people who will help you evolve.

Incubators make it easier and simpler for you to start a business, but they don’t know if your business will work in the long term any more than you do. Consider the investment required to follow their programs and the return on that investment for you and your project, compared to the goals you have set for yourself, and you can objectively conclude if it makes sense for you. Go no go? Only you can say that.

If you finally realize that incubators/accelerators/nurseries, with their long programs over several months, are not for you, you can always turn to consulting companies. Indeed, consulting companies give you technical recommendations to improve a specific aspect of your business.

If you don’t need coaching, coworking space or equipment, but you have a specific and punctual need, consulting companies are better suited to your needs. They intervene to solve a problem or strengthen your teams and leave when you no longer need them.

There are hundreds of consulting companies, sometimes very specialized, sometimes multi-specialists, some of which are very well known and have thousands of consultants to meet all your needs: Altran, Fortil, Abylsen, etc. Rest assured, there is something for everyone: banking, insurance, health, chemistry, aeronautics, energy, agro-food, etc.

How do consulting companies work? You contact them, then you meet them during a first interview to define precisely your needs and the profile of the consultant you are looking for. Then, during a second interview, you meet the candidates and, normally, you choose one. Then you are invoiced per day worked by the consultant in the company, on average 400 euros per day for a young engineer for example. The rarer the profile you are looking for, the higher the rate will be.

Some testimonies from former incubates:

“The incubator is supportive on all levels. You meet people who share the same values and face the same obstacles and challenges. The atmosphere is great! There is a spirit of mutual aid and solidarity that makes you want to move forward.”
Elena, class of 2016 – Founder of Citron Macaron – IESEG Incubator

“The Emergence program allows us to consolidate our project, to benefit from the strength of a quality network and to evolve in a supportive and dynamic environment.”
Camille Davigo & Mélissa Chades, class of 2019 – “Ça boom” project – ESC Clermont Incubator

“The development of a product and a service intended for avionics does not tolerate approximation. The assiduous collaboration we have with the Arts et Métiers incubator and the work done in close collaboration with the LCPI, makes us competitive in the development of a prototype with demanding specifications.
Christophe Pavlesvski – AIRPROX project – Arts et Métiers incubator