Student entrepreneurs find success in the AI industry

Feb 24, 2023

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Two years ago, Shantanu Roy and Thomas Stahura never imagined that generative artificial intelligence would become so popular, sophisticated and accessible in such a short amount of time. Now, as co-founders of the software development company Quasi, the two Purdue juniors are working hard to make their mark in an industry that’s growing and changing every day.

Roy, a selling and sales management major in the White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, is always searching for ways to expand his network and strengthen his business acumen. In the fall of 2021, when he heard that Stahura, an interdisciplinary engineering major in the School of Engineering Education, had created an AI chatbot to help students better understand their coursework, the two met over coffee to discuss the technology’s future potential.

“We were saying, ‘This tech is really cool, but there’s something else out there that needs to be built that we’re not really seeing yet,’” Roy says. “We ended up realizing that both of us are very much creative people. We want to create a bunch of things, but we don’t have the time or the skills to do all those things.”

They envisioned developing a platform that could help users easily tap into their creativity by using AI technology to make personalized content. After their meeting, Roy, then president of The Anvil, a student organization that provides mentorship, programming and resources to student founders and startups, walked Stahura over to the organization’s office in the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship. They knew it would soon be the perfect space to transform their ideas into reality. 

They made their home in the building, and in January, Roy and Stahura launched the company’s website — the first factor in determining whether this was an idea worth pursuing. The platform offered AI text generators that could write poems, essays, code and nearly everything in between. They watched in excitement as the site’s traffic slowly began to increase, and that spring, they presented their vision to a panel of a judges at the Purdue Startup Expo. Placing fourth in the competition, the duo was disappointed, but the $7,500 in prize money was more than enough to keep their dream alive.

As AI capabilities rapidly advanced, Roy and Stahura worked tirelessly to update their product to reflect the ever-changing space. They added an image generator that can create watercolor art, charcoal sketches, oil paintings and more and dipped their toes into the AI music space by developing a tool that can remix existing songs and create new ones. Still, they felt overwhelmed by AI’s massive popularity wave, and they were struggling to find their place in the industry.

“We didn’t really know where our product fit in,” Stahura says. “We knew we were in this space and that there was something here, but we didn’t know who we were selling to. Was it AI enthusiasts? Was it creatives? Or was it people who wanted automation? We were just really spread out and building constantly.”

They paused their work to discuss where the most value lay in both Quasi and AI, and their conversations kept returning to the concept of personalization. According to their metrics, many of the website’s 2,000 monthly visitors were using the platform to create writing and art that was personal to them. They discovered that users could be divided into two groups: individuals who create content for themselves and business owners who create content for their consumers. The team decided to phase out the original site and use the existing technology to create two separate creative spaces.

“Our ultimate goal is we want to create a very good, personalized experience because we believe that in the future, a lot of media will be created by AI,” Roy says. “There’s no platform that exists today that can create a million different blogs and send them out to a million different people. In the future, there will be a platform that has that capability to create hyperpersonalized things for people, but in order for that to happen, there has to be a new platform built from the ground up.”

Soon, that platform will take shape as a social media app called Fiction, which is now in a closed beta stage with a waitlist people can sign up for to receive a custom invite code to download the app. The interactive multimedia experience will allow users to create stories, art and more. Roy and Stahura compare it to existing apps like TikTok, but instead of recommending content created by other people, users will interact with fresh, never-before-seen content curated and created by AI-powered technology.

The app will be funded by Quasi Business, a space reserved for business owners who lack a well-established online presence or a marketing team dedicated to building it. AI text and image generators will help these entities automatically update their website interfaces with personalized content like blogs, social media copy and royalty-free stock photos.

“We need to build something — not just talk about it,” Roy says. “If we fully immerse ourselves in this, things will happen, moves will be made and we can continue to push the envelope. Being in this environment gets really motivating really quickly, and you start to see in the grand scheme of things, we just want to create value for others. I think making sure that personalization is, like, front and center is a good goal to have. We’re in the information age now, but to help create the new personalization age would be really cool.”

As their work grows and expands, so does their company. Roy and Stahura’s team now includes six Purdue student product developers and sales managers, many of whom are freshmen or sophomores. A recent search for an additional developer drew more than 200 applications from students all over the country.

By participating in startup programs sponsored by Google and Microsoft, Quasi has received more than $400,000 in cloud credits and over $100,000 worth of startup software tools. The team has also competed in the Amazon Web Services University Startup Competition. Each initiative partners with startups to provide resources related to incorporation, ad credits, server access and more.   

The group has now made their home at the Convergence Center in an entrepreneurship space owned by the Purdue Foundry. In the midst of all this growth, they’re also forming connections with valuable entities like the Silicon Valley Boilermaker Innovation Group, an organization dedicated to mentoring Purdue student, faculty and alumni entrepreneurs.

Looking back on their experience, Roy and Stahura are proud of how far they’ve come, but they’re even more enthusiastic about the future. They plan to continue working full time with generative AI technology after they graduate. As for now, the two believe that Purdue is transforming into a space where student entrepreneurs can thrive, even if they don’t know how or where to begin.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘How do you learn these things?’” Stahura says. “And my answer is that I just started doing it. I would say the best photo happens when you don’t even realize you’re smiling, and the best learning happens when you don’t even realize you’re learning.”