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SoftBank Group Corp.’s Masayoshi Son has bet on everything from chip companies to office-space provider WeWork Inc., but has taken an unusual turn with his latest foray: sleep disorders.

Japan’s Aculys Pharma LLC, backed by SoftBank’s second Vision Fund, bought the rights to develop and sell pitolisant, used to treat narcolepsy and sleep apnea in Europe. The drug, made by French drugmaker Bioprojet Pharma, is used to treat bouts of involuntary sleep. The goal is to provide solutions beyond selling the medicine using wearable devices and analyzing data to treat people, Kazunari Tsunaba, Aculys’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. 

The proportion of people sleeping less than the recommended eight hours of sleep is rising globally, associated with stress, alcohol intake, smoking, lack of physical activity and excessive electronic media use — all of which costs the nation of Japan as much $138 billion in economic losses each year, according to Rand Corp. Of all adults in Japan, 20% are chronically sleep deprived and 15% feel excessively sleepy during the day, acording to the Japan Preventative Association of Lifestyle-Related Diseases. 

“Unlike the traditional drugmakers, which just sell drugs, we are here to tackle Japan’s social problems," said Tsunaba, who quit his job running the local unit of Novartis AG to start Aculys in January. “There are so many social issues in the area of mental and neurological diseases. We have to find solutions in many areas, such as for patients, caregiver support and developing treatment apps."

While narcolepy and sleep apnea are commonly treated with narcotic drugs such as Provigil or Ritalin in western countries, Japanese doctors and patients are hesitant to use them because of the dependency risk, Tsunaba said. Pitolisant isn’t addictive, he said. 

Aculys will initially focus on developing drugs that have been approved overseas but not yet in Japan, Tsunaba said. The company will expand in other mental and neurological areas such as epilepsy, migraines and Parkinson’s disease, he added. 

The pharma startup raised 6.8 billion yen ($59 million) from funds including SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2, Catalys Pacific, HBM Healthcare Investments, Global Founders Capital and Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Investment and Anri. SoftBank’s investment director Peter Park joined Aculys as a director Nov. 4.


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