Meet Indiana Valerian, CEO of Peacock.
Indiana Valerian is the CEO and founder of ANTS. He studied physics at the renowned EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and graduated as a physicist from the Sorbonne University (Paris).
He is an enthusiastic young entrepreneur with a talent for assembling large teams and managing projects. He is also very passionate about artificial intelligence and what its future development could bring to humanity.
Indiana founded Peacock Solutions SARL in 2016, a company offering AI development services to SMEs in Switzerland and France. The particularity of Peacock Solutions is that all employees are Master or PHD students at EPFL. After a few mandates, because of its simplicity and attractiveness, the model was exported to France and duplicated at the École Polytechnique de Paris.
Peacock Solutions was the first private company to establish a commercial agreement with EPFL in 2018 to operate their SCITAS supercomputer for neural network training.
What is your startup's pitch and how did you come up with the idea for this project?
Peacock is a platform deployed on European campuses that brings together SMEs and students to democratize the deployment of Artificial Intelligence.
At the end of my first year of Physics at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, I found a way to solve an SME problem during a summer internship. I used the first Machine-Learning approaches I knew and they solved very quickly some practical problems that SMEs have with their databases. Proud of this first contract, I set up the Peacock company and called my five physicist friends. I quickly realized that we had a demand, but also an offer. Indeed, if we, students working as a team, could achieve these results, it was possible to generalize the process. That's how Peacock became a platform to bring SMEs and students together on AI projects. The next step was to provide a framework that protected the student and ensured proper and contractual compensation.
I started my physics degree at EPFL and finished it at the Sorbonne. When I arrived in Paris in September 2018, I quickly understood the economic situation of my fellow students, and it didn't take long before I decided to deploy this solution putting the student back at the center. You'll tell me that it's not strategic to communicate about Peacock by saying that students are my priority, and I'll tell you that it's only by bringing them together, valuing them, and protecting them that we can develop AI that meets the demands of the industry.
Any failures or difficulties? How did you bounce back?
As a student myself working to pay for school, I knew what it takes to survive, so I offered all the students working with us a good salary by cutting into the profit margin. I made a rookie mistake, working with students I emphasized excellence but also affordability of projects. It's only after a few unsigned contracts where I was told the same thing: "Actually, we're a bit short, could you make us a prototype in a week and we'll look at it later?
I offered low prices, so I attracted a clientele with little room to maneuver. And I have too much respect for my students to give them the "this is the startup-nation, you'll see we'll pay you afterwards" trick. This was a hindrance, since a successful project is above all the result of good resource planning, which does not lend itself well to short projects. We reviewed our approach and integrated the "startup" workflow into our offer. However, it is this same "organized & distributed" work approach that has allowed us to have the elasticity to stay open in the competitive world of service startups while the economy was at its lowest. SMEs have other priorities in times of crisis than investing in new technologies. My approach is based on low fixed operating costs and a variable payroll that depends on cash flow. When we had to go into survival mode, ensuring the continuity of Peacock was not too difficult.
Today, our ability to build projects with engineers in multiple locations is a competitive strength because we had this same approach before circumstances required it.
What are the upcoming developments and new features?
We opened our offices at EPFL in 2018 and at X-Tech in 2019, the business incubator for technologically mature startups at the Ecole Polytechnique. We wanted to expand to the Cambridge campus for 2020, but that plan has been postponed indefinitely. The next step is the start of the school year in September 2021. Nothing would make me happier than a collaboration with School 42. Having finished my studies, I no longer meet the necessary condition to work at Peacock. It is therefore another student who will take over from me at the head of Peacock at the beginning of the academic year. I will leave it to the new committee to choose the most appropriate strategy. I am currently in transition on my next project.
How do you imagine the start-up in a few years?
I have always known that the real value of this startup is its ability to bring together brilliant people on projects that represent real industry challenges. I want to see that same tradition spread to more and more campuses. More than ever, bringing together students from different majors during the excitement of university life is an innovation gas pedal.
If you had to describe your experience at the Innovation Center in one word?
Fundamental. None of this would be possible without the massive support of X-Tech, which not only provides us with space at a price that is designed to actively help startups, but also with a vibrant ecosystem that allows us to continually stay on top of the latest innovations.
What does your presence in X-Tech bring to you?
X-Tech is above all a guarantee of quality. Working with students is one thing, working with the best is another. The Ecole Polytechnique is an impressive institution that lives up to its reputation. Our presence at X-Tech has made this possible. More generally, our presence on campus has made it possible on all 3 dimensions necessary to create AI:
- The first thing we need is machine learning algorithms. The technology is known, and the most documentation and expertise on this is found on campus.
- The second thing is data, and more than ever, working with engineers with a solid academic background and fresh training can provide solutions to find or infer data.
- The last thing, and the most important, is computing power. Training AI requires specific hardware, and our commercial agreement with the SCITAS supercomputer at EPFL to train our neural networks is a determining factor. Peacock is a bridge between industry and academia, but Peacock is intrinsically dependent on campuses like X-Tech that support us in this adventure!
Launching yourself into entrepreneurship: what was your trigger?
I wanted to, but I didn't choose it. I knew that I deeply love bringing people together and it was only much later that I understood that this was the determining factor for being an entrepreneur.
What kind of entrepreneur are you? How do you define yourself as an entrepreneur (determined, passionate...)?
Committed and predictable. I am a logical person with a very simple goal, which makes me very predictable to those around me.
Necessary qualities and skills of the entrepreneur?
Empathy. I am not part of this authoritarian entrepreneurial generation. I can only be the best in my field if I surround myself with the best. The best tend to know that they are the best and deserve to be recognized as such by taking a collaborative and horizontal approach.
If you want something, go get it.
Any advice for young people who want to get started?
If you are not ready to accept that your next 3 years are going to be a sacrifice on all dimensions of your life, don't go for it. If there's anything more precarious than being a student, it's being a student-starter. And if this doesn't scare you, my friend, then your project is worth it.
What has been your background?
My name is Indiana Valerian, I'm a physicist. I started Peacock while in college and now I'm starting a fundraiser for an amazing AI project. I believe that AI should be accessible to all businesses. SMEs are a fundamental pillar of our economic democracy. If we don't quickly provide a tool that allows SMEs to stay competitive with AI, we risk seeing this player in our economy disappear and that's a situation I'm not comfortable with at all. I have a solution to this problem and it is therefore my duty to do whatever is necessary to avoid this. My startup is called ANTS, we are developing the very first smartcomputer. It's a revolutionary computer that makes it easy to deploy AI in any company.
I invite all scientists, engineers and investors, who are not satisfied with the direction AI is taking and the notion of privacy, to join my teams and build together the most extraordinary AI.