Intense competition for new ‘42’ IT start-up academy

Up to 70,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 30 have completed a four-hour aptitude test on the internet to compete for a place at ‘42’ – a grand educational experiment in France to recruit talented, often underprivileged, youths to the informatics sector. Self-made billionaire Xavier Niel and a group of incubator entrepreneurs are behind the initiative.

During October 4,000 youngsters are being vetted at the Halle Freyssinet centre on the outskirts of Paris in a ‘sink-or-swim’ test. They are competing for 1,000 places.

Located in the 13th arrondisement of Paris, the Halle Freyssinet centre is a converted railway station, to be reconstructed by architects into a combination of education facilities, incubator hubs and private companies, transforming the area into a kind of Parisian ‘Silicon Valley’.

The project is being co-financed by Xavier Niel, the mayor of Paris and the Caisse de Depots – Deposits and Consignments Fund – with the aim of creating the world’s largest incubator for informatics in 2016-17.

Named only ‘42’, the informatics school was launched by Niel, a programmer billionaire who worked himself up to become the 6th richest man in France in 2013, according to Forbes Lists, up from place number 242 in 2012.

Niel, sometimes referred to as a ‘maverick’, is the owner of several successful companies and in 2011 became co-owner of Paris’ daily paper Le Monde, much to the chagrin of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who tried to obstruct the deal.

Niel is regarded as one of the most active investors in incubation companies in the world, allegedly investing in one or two such companies every day.

Incubator for start-ups

The long-term objective of the ‘42’ training programme is to recruit up to 1,000 talented youths every year. Having completed the programme, the youths could then aim to start their own companies in 2016-17 in the Halle Freyssinet area, where Niel will cover up to 90% of the start-up investment costs.

‘42’ is a non-traditional higher education project, not having classes or a curriculum, but working on problem assignments in teams, so-called ‘peer to peer’ learning. It will run an around-the-clock operation, never closing the premises.

In Halle Freyssinet 1,000 iMac computers have been installed, connected to a high-speed broadband network and using state-of-the art technology. Students are expected to solve problems working in teams for up to 15 hours at a stretch and will have access to self-catering services and sleeping quarters at the premises.

When fully developed, Halle Freyssinet will comprise 320,000 square feet of space. An animated video has been developed presenting the plans for the area.

Niel has recruited Nicolas Sadirac as director general and Kwame Yamgnane and Florian Bucher as co-directors, all of whom are experienced in IT learning. Sadirac was founder of Epitech, with 12 private IT schools located throughout France where he developed the concept of project-based training.

‘42’ has recruited interested youths via its webpage ‘42/born2code’ in recent months, with extensive information on its “ambition for France” and for the informatics sector – and in particular for underprivileged youths.

The webpage contains a detailed description of 42’s pedagogy and what kind of qualifications and motivations it is looking for, together with examples of media coverage, which has been intense. These include articles by The Economist, Financial Times, The New York Times, the Guardian and numerous French media publications.

Niel’s foremost ambition is to recruit talented underprivileged youths to ‘42’, promising them a starting salary of €40,000 to €50,000 (US$54,000 to US$67,000) and no problems in finding a job, since France has a serious deficit of software engineers.

Collaboration with universities

Even though Niel has said that the higher education sector in France is too rigid and historically insensitive to cater for the social mobility of talented people not belonging to the privileged classes and not “having the right connections”, he has previously collaborated with several elite institutions.

In 2011, together with two others, he financed a professorship at the HEC School of Management, or Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris, in “e-Business and Digital Innovation for Businesses”.

On 11 October, Niel spoke at a Institut d’etudes politiques de Paris – Sciences Po – masterclass on “How to create and develop your start-up (company)”, stating that France has an ideal fiscal system for creating start-ups compared to other countries, and that project ‘42’ would build on this.

His lecture is streamed on the internet (in French only).