News App SmartNews Expanded From Japan to the U.S., Won Unicorn Status

Who owns SmartNews? The news app, which uses machine learning to surface quality journalism, scored a $1.1-billion valuation in 2019.

Dan Clarendon - Author

Sep. 8 2021, Published 11:43 a.m. ET

SmartNews logo
Source: SmartNews

Despite competing with news apps from tech behemoths such as Apple News and Google News, third-party news apps can make a splash with mobile users. Case in point: SmartNews, an app that achieved unicorn status in 2019 with a $1.1-billion valuation. The app had 20 million monthly active users at the time, according to TechCrunch, and it was growing 500 percent per year.

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“We are very pleased with our strong progress in the United States,” SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Suzuki said at the time. “We will continue to share our vision of informed, balanced media consumption with our current and future users in the U.S. and all over the world.”

What is SmartNews?

SmartNews is a news app with a mission of “delivering the world’s quality information to the people who need it,” according to its website. To achieve that goal, the platform uses machine learning to find quality journalism, and it shares traffic and revenue with the publishers behind that journalism. In particular, it monetizes user traffic with its “instantly loading, mobile-friendly” SmartView format.

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“News should be impartial, trending and trustworthy. Our algorithms evaluate millions of articles, social signals, and human interactions to deliver the top 0.01 percent of stories that matter most, right now,” the site explains. According to TechCrunch, the app earns revenue through inline advertising, video ads, and publisher deals. At the time of its $1.1-billion valuation, the app had nearly 400 publishing partners in the U.S., including Bloomberg and the Associated Press.

So far, the app has an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 on the Apple App Store, based on nearly 562,000 ratings. On the Google Play Store, meanwhile, it’s rated an average of 4.0 out of 5 stars by more than 548,000 raters. And as Insider reports, the app won Apple’s Best of 2013 award and Google’s Best App of the Year 2013 award.

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Who owns SmartNews?

SmartNews, still a private company, was founded by Kaisei Hamamoto and Ken Suzuki. Since they launched SmartNews in 2012, the company has grown to include more than 200 employees across Japan and the U.S. At TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 conference, Hamamoto—who is also SmartNews’ COO and chief engineer—said that the U.S. is “not only an attractive market but also an important development center.”

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To that end, SmartNews sent members of its U.S. and Japanese teams across 13 states in 2016 to better understand the country’s population. “We knew we couldn’t get a true sense of America by only visiting the East Coast and West Coast,” Hamamoto said.

The trip gave the SmartNews teams a sense of the political polarization in the country. “We tend to categorize people into just two segments, our side or the other side, and we tend to think of the other side as the enemy, but in reality the world is not that simple,” Hamamoto observed. As a result, one of SmartNews’ tenets is that “having a willingness to listen to other people and not easily label them will help solve the division of our society.”


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