After graduating from Keio School of Medicine and spending five years working as a resident and clinician, Satake received a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Shanghai and a Master of Public Health (MPH) in the United States. After returning to Japan, he reconnected with fellow Keio alumni Shin Suzuki, and together they founded CureApp, Inc. in July 2014 to develop CureApp Smoking Cessation, an app designed to help fight nicotine addiction.
―These days everyone has a smartphone, and there all kinds of health apps out there. What sets your digital therapeutics apart and how is it used in a clinical setting?
Our company is called CureApp, with "cure" referring to therapeutic effects. Our goal is to develop medical apps that can effectively treat and cure disease. This is fundamentally different from other health apps that people use to stay healthy. The doctor’s role is to apply different treatments to a patient’s disease, so we are developing what we like to call "doctor-prescribed apps."
Doctors currently have two approaches to patient treatment. One method makes use of drugs and other medicines while the other involves surgery and medical equipment. We think of CureApp's Digital Therapeutics as a third line of treatment that allows doctors to use software as a new tool for curing disease. Our first product is a smoking cessation app. Since last October, we have been holding clinical trials, mainly at Keio University Hospital, in order to obtain regulatory approval as Japan's first medical digital therapeutics.
―Smoking cessation outpatient services are quite common now, and many people who want to stop smoking are visiting the hospital for help. Although doctors currently prescribe nicotine patches and oral medications, follow-up studies show that less than 30% of patients successfully quit smoking after one year. This just goes to show that smoking really is a tough habit to break.
The current reality is that the other 70% of patients really do want to quit smoking but aren’t able to, despite long stays at the hospital and expensive medical treatments. We developed the smoking cessation app with these people in mind.
Behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that is currently used for smoking cessation therapy. In conventional hospital treatments, doctors and nurses provide their patients with medicine and guidance. But at home there is no one to help you stay on track when you’re trying to quit. Until now, you had to go it alone. But with our smoking cessation app, you can continue your treatment at home or at work on your smartphone using our chat and videos as you continue taking your prescribed medication. Algorithms and guidance materials form the basis of our app, which untangles the evidence we've accumulated over the history of medicine and the tacit knowledge that physicians come to possess after years of providing treatment. The app helps patients build habits that discourage smoking and includes a support function that helps prevent them from starting again after treatments have ended.
We have also developed a device for measuring the exhaled carbon monoxide (CO), whose concentration can be used to determine a patient's smoking habits. Together with the app, patients can precisely measure their CO levels at home, something that was only possible at the hospital until now.
―To overcome lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure, it is encouraging for people to be able to check their blood pressure at home and visualize that data daily. It seems promising that those wanting to quit smoking will find similar encouragement from their portable CO device and smoking cessation app.
Since our IoT device uses Bluetooth, users can view their data on their smartphones and easily share that data with their doctor. The app can also be used for remote and online medical treatments through video chat, which I believe will become more and more common.
For our second app, we are collaborating with the University of Tokyo Hospital to develop CureApp NASH, a non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) digital therapeutics, for which we are currently conducting clinical research. Going forward, we would like to obtain regulatory approval under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act, similar to our smoking cessation app. In addition to this, we are already working on joint development with various medical institutions to create an app that is effective in treating lifestyle diseases as well as mental health issues. We also aim to acquire approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a Japanese innovative medical technology and are considering expanding into China as well.
―After becoming a doctor, you also went on to become a medical entrepreneur. Did you originally plan to just work as a doctor?
Actually, I really wanted to be an astronaut. When I was in high school, I got into both the Keio University School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences (Science I) at the University of Tokyo. I realized that I could go the route of doctor to astronaut, just like Keio graduate Chiaki Mukai, who became an astronaut after working as a doctor. Plenty of people who attend science and engineering school want to go to space, but few people who study medicine aim for the stars. My high school self thought that my odds of becoming an astronaut would be much higher if I studied medicine, and so I chose the Keio School of Medicine.
―Did you have a fulfilling college life?
My older brother was studying medicine at another university, and I always heard how strict they were about class attendance. So I was pleasantly surprised by the freedom that Keio gives its students, and while I remember always being busy, I was able to thoroughly enjoy my student life.
Soon after first-year orientation, I was invited to join the School of Medicine Sailing Team, and they took me out on their yachts at Enoshima, just south of Tokyo. That was the first time I experienced the joy of sailing, and the charisma of the team members was another big reason why I decided to join the club.
Every Saturday and Sunday we would train at our Enoshima clubhouse, which we borrowed from a Keio alumni, and camp out there for longer periods in July and August before the East Japan Medical Student Championships. These training camps—and all of the weeks I spent under the same roof with my peers during them—gave me the kind of memories you can only make when you’re a student. Medical students from other universities would also train near Enoshima around the same time, so there was always this burning sense of rivalry and competition among us. But I also remember feeling a bit left out when I would see all the swimmers and sunbathers having such a good time on the beach while we were working so hard.
Our team even won the East Japan Medical Student Group Championships when I was an undergraduate. Unfortunately, we placed second when I was captain of the Sailing Team, but I personally competed among Olympic athletes at the 470 Japan National Championship. It was quite uncommon for medical student athletes to go that far and it proved to be a valuable experience for me.
Let me add that Shin Suzuki, a founding member of CureApp, Inc., is a fellow Keio Sailing Team member three years my junior and a doctor who excels at programming. We now work together: I am the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and he is Chief Development Officer (CDO).
―After graduation, you did your residency at Japanese Red Cross Kitami Hospital in Hokkaido and worked as a clinical physician of respiratory medicine at the Japan Red Cross Medical Center before going to Shanghai to study for your MBA.
I spent a total of eleven years focused on medicine: six as an undergraduate student and five as a physician. A desire to see new parts of the world was growing inside me. I also wanted to try living abroad, so I decided to study at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), which is ranked the top business school in Asia and among the best 10 schools in the world. I could have just as easily gone to the United States, but I thought it would be interesting living in China. I had backpacked through China once when I was a student, and I wanted to see what the country’s neck-break pace of change was like from the inside.
It was extremely stimulating to have discussions and work on case studies with people from different backgrounds and cultures. At CEIBS, students come from more than 20 countries across Europe and Asia, and I’m still in touch with many of my classmates today.
―After that, you went to the United States to study for your Master of Public Health (MPH).
While I was at CEIBS, I heard that they were starting a dual degree program with Johns Hopkins University the following year, so I convinced the school to let me participate one year earlier than the provisional start date, making me part of the very first cohort of the program.
Concepts of public health are much broader in the US, and schools there systematically focus on subjects such as global health, disaster medicine, medical informatics (information science) in addition to the usual fields of statistics and epidemiology. It was there that I first learned of the development of medical software aimed at diabetes patients, which became a big inspiration for us when we founded CureApp.
My specialty is respiratory medicine, so I decided to first focus on developing a smoking cessation app. These days I still work as a physician once a week at the Japan Red Cross Medical Center, and I’ve also opened up a late-night clinical near our company. My hands-on experience as a clinical physician has been a great help when developing the app.
―Could you say a few final words to current students?
My work with CureApp is so rewarding for me because I really see sick patients get better using our software. But in the beginning, I never intended to start a digital therapeutics business. Apart from my experience as a doctor, I had touched on marketing and finance while studying abroad in China and went onto learn about medical informatics in the US. Each and every time, I was excited about the new things I was learning, and all of those experiences now connect back to a single narrative—one where I started a business using IT and paved the way for a life I had never imagined before. When you’re a student, you may feel lost or worry about the future. But don’t just do something because other people around you are doing it or because someone said that you should. Dive head first into whatever excites you, and you are bound to experience more meaningful work and live a more fulfilling life.
―Thank you for your time.
Founder and CEO, CureApp, Inc.
Graduated from the School of Medicine in 2007. After engaging in clinical work as a respiratory physician at the Japanese Red Cross Society Medical Center, Satake received an MBA from the Central European International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai in 2012. In 2014, he received a Master of Public Health (MPH) from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. After returning to Japan, Satake founded CureApp, Inc. in July 2014 together with fellow Keio alumni Shin Suzuki, who graduated from the School of Medicine in 2010. In addition to his role as CEO, he also runs a medical clinic and is a practicing physician.
*This article appeared in the 2018 spring edition (No. 298) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.