A start-up can be launched in a garage in California or in the garden of a Parisian mansion in the Marais neighborhood that belonged to Jacques Necker, minister to Louis XVI, and was the birthplace of his daughter, Madame de Staël. On the edge of a lawn lined with a fountain and tall Doric columns are the three rooms of the Hôtel d’Hallwyll occupied by Kyutai, a new artificial intelligence (AI) research center.
Arriving in mid-January, the six-member team has no heating yet, but already a brand-new kitchenette. Under the imposing framework of the main room, freshly painted white, there was a studious silence. Standing at his desk, Technical Manager Laurent Mazaré faced two screens filled with multi-colored lines of code. He wore a broad smile, a pair of green Crocs and a hooded sweatshirt from DeepMind, Google’s renowned AI subsidiary where he used to work.
“It’s exhilarating to create something from scratch. Kyutai is a new object. It has everything it takes to become a major player in modern AI,” said Patrick Pérez, the CEO of this non-profit laboratory, whose aim is to publish AI software that generates text, images and sound, such as those from Google or OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT.
Even so, the six 30- and 40-somethings admitted to feeling a little stressed at the grand launch on November 17, 2023, at the Station F incubator. In attendance were the three bosses who had allocated €300 million to the project: Xavier Niel, head of operator Iliad (also an individual shareholder in The world, founder of Station F and owner of the Hôtel d’Hallwyll, where Kyutai is housed free of charge); Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google; and Rodolphe Saadé, CEO of shipowner CMA CGM.
‘An issue of technological sovereignty’
A videoconference was held with Jensen Huang, the powerful head of Nvidia, whose graphics cards equip the supercomputer at Scaleway (an Iliad subsidiary) in northern France, which Kuytai will use to train its software. Finally, President Emmanuel Macron insisted via video that having French AI models is “an issue of technological sovereignty.” Since then, Pérez has been busy sorting through the thousand CVs Kyutai received “from all over the world” in order to recruit the 30 or so future employees.
“Something is happening in Paris in AI right now,” said Julien Chaumond, co-founder of the start-up Hugging Face. This observation is shared by the American media outlets TechCrunch and Bloomberg. The fact that Mistral AI, founded in April 2023 by three French techies, is already valued at €1.86 billion after raising nearly €500 million, has struck a chord. The same goes for the Paris-based Poolside, founded by two Americans in the niche of computer code writing assistance, after a funding round of over €100 million. As for Hugging Face, founded in 2016, it raised a further €218 million in August from investors. A leading platform for publishing open-source AI software, it is valued at €4.2 billion.
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