Photographer: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

Nomura Bets on Startup to Help Japan’s Smokers Kick the Habit

  • Keio University and SBI are also among investors in CureApp
  • Venture develops health apps and is seeking an IPO in 2020

Nomura Holdings Inc. and Keio University are investing in a startup that’s seeking to revolutionize how smokers quit the habit.

CureApp Inc., which develops mobile applications to treat ailments including tobacco addiction, received 380 million yen ($3.4 million) this month from investors including Nomura and Keio’s venture-capital partnership, the startup’s founder and Chief Executive Officer Kohta Satake said. An SBI Holdings Inc. unit also contributed, and CureApp will use the funds to develop products and expand in the U.S., he said in an interview.

The venture’s success hinges on whether the anti-smoking app receives government permission for use as a treatment that’s eligible for coverage under Japan’s health-insurance program. If it’s approved, doctors will be able to prescribe the software, which provides users with real-time feedback on their phones to resist the urge to smoke.

Japanese authorities revised the pharmaceutical law in 2014 to allow mobile apps to be recognized as medical devices, though none have achieved that designation yet, according to Satake. CureApp’s product is currently being trialed and Satake, 34, a physician specializing in respiratory medicine, expects it to be approved by 2019.

“The company is very popular among investors and there was stiff competition to provide funding,” said Kotaro Yamagishi, CEO of Keio Innovation Initiative Inc., the partnership between the Tokyo-based university and Nomura. “We expect the app to be authorized for use on the national insurance program and it will be a profitable business.”

Seeking IPO

CureApp aims to go public in 2020, Satake said. The startup plans to set up an office in California this year. It’s also seeking to develop apps for patients with fatty-liver disease, diabetes and depression, he added. 

Smoking rates in Japan, while still relatively high among developed countries, have been declining for years as people become deterred by the health risks, tighter regulations and increases in prices and taxes. Fewer than a fifth of the adult population now smoke, down from almost half in 1966, according to a Japan Tobacco Inc. survey.

About half a million smokers in Japan seek clinical treatment to quit each year, relying partly on brief, infrequent consultations with their doctor, according to Satake. Users of the app interact throughout the day with an animated nurse who monitors their progress and suggests how to fend off cravings.

“Giving up smoking can be a lonely battle,” Satake said. “Many people want to stop, regardless of the cost, but their efforts are often in vain.” 

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