Arthur Mensch, tall and lean with a flop of unkempt hair, arrived for a speech last month at a sprawling tech hub in Paris wearing jeans and carrying a bicycle helmet. He had an unassuming look for a person European officials are counting on to help propel the region into a high-stakes match with the United States and China over artificial intelligence.

Mensch, 31, is the CEO and a founder of Mistral, considered by many to be one of the most promising challengers to OpenAI and Google. "You have become the poster child for AI in France,” Matt Clifford, a British investor, told him onstage.

A lot is riding on Mensch, whose company has shot into the spotlight just a year after he founded it in Paris with two college friends. As Europe scrambles to get a foothold in the AI revolution, the French government has singled out Mistral as its best hope to create a standard-bearer, and has lobbied European Union policymakers to help ensure the firm’s success.