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Chinese startup touts software panacea for 200m insomniacs

Zhengan Keji says its remedy for sleeplessness is convenient, cheap and effective

Zhengan Keji's AI therapists take the form of chatbots that get to know patients before putting them through a regimen of sleep restrictions, stimulation control, cognitive therapy, relaxation techniques and sleep hygiene. (Source photo by Zhengan Keji and Getty Images) 

BEIJING -- There are more than 500 million insomnia patients in China, over 200 million of whom are chronic sufferers, according to a 2016 report by the China Sleep Research Society. In other words, nearly all Chinese households are dens of sleep deprivation.

Now a startup is offering an artificial intelligence solution that it calls "asleep."

Zhengan Keji's digital therapeutics, or DTx, prescribes software to patients much like doctors prescribe medicines to patients. The prescriptions can be made anywhere anytime, and the treatments are relatively cheap, the company says.

Insomnia has become a major issue in China, but medical solutions were uncommon until recently, and the country does not have enough sleep specialists or diverse treatments.

Therefore, many Chinese insomniacs either do not seek medical care or seek help from random doctors.

Insomnia causes significant psychological and physiological damage. It makes people more likely to develop anxiety, depression, chronic diseases and other maladies. It also impacts patients' everyday lives.

Solutions available in the market include memory foam pillows, health food, smart devices and sleep-tracking apps.

Zhengan Keji's asleep solution adopts cognitive behavioral therapy-Insomnia, or CBT-I.

Through software, the digital therapeutics attempt to intervene in and correct patients' perceptions, behavior and psychology regarding chronic insomnia and thereby adjust their sleep rhythm. The system allows patients to fall asleep smoothly without taking sleeping pills.

Nondrug therapies are common at specialized hospitals, but patients must visit these clinics every week and pay as much as 1,000 yuan ($143) each time.

The asleep solution essentially creates online sleeping clinics. The AI therapist, on behalf of doctors, diagnoses insomniacs over the internet and provides a completely customized solution based on each patient's unique set of factors.

The AI therapist gets to know each patient with the help of a chatbot, then evaluates their condition. While conducting a follow-up, it also adjusts the treatment plan -- a combination of sleep restrictions, stimulation control methods, cognitive therapy, relaxation techniques, sleep hygiene instructions and other prescriptions.

Patients receive 15-minute online instructions every day but are not bound by time or location. The treatment costs 499 yuan in total, much cheaper than conventional treatments. A beta test version has already been released, and users can receive treatment for free during the trial period.

In a clinical trial in March, 85% of the subjects showed remarkable results after about two weeks of being on asleep. On average, these patients were able to cut the amount of time needed to fall asleep to 30 minutes from 60 minutes.

The company plans to conduct a clinical trial with the Peking University Sleep Research Center.

Zhengan Keji positions itself as a digital health company. It is now seeking authorization from China's National Medical Products Administration.

U.S. meditech startup Pear Therapeutics' Somryst in March became the first digital therapeutics app aimed at insomniacs to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, providing a tailwind for China's medical industry.

"We adopt business-to-business-to-consumer and business-to-consumer models," Zhengan Keji founder Liu Xiaogang said. "We are targeting people who are suffering from insomnia, including pregnant women, who are likely to have insomnia; lactating women, 70% of whom are said to have insomnia; and dieters, who are more likely to have insomnia.

"As sleep quality correlates with diseases like diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression, there is a strong demand among people with these diseases," Liu said. "With asleep digital therapeutics, we aim to find potential partner companies focusing on these areas and enter into revenue-sharing agreements with them."

Zhengan Keji is also trying to lure retail customers via promotions using popular messaging apps like WeChat and Weibo, video-sharing apps like Douyin and Kuaishou, and question-and-answer website Zhihu as well as search engine optimization measures aimed at improving the ranking of a website in search engine listings.

Many of the company's clients are repeat customers who come back for more sleep-supporting software and hardware. After reaching a critical user mass, the company plans to consider providing data services as well.

Liu has 16 years of experience as a design manager for tech products. He has worked for internet giant Tencent Holdings and Kingsoft Cloud, a unit of smartphone maker Xiaomi. At the Xiaomi-based smart wearable technology company Huami, he launched a medical health business and was also in charge of software development for Xiaomi's smart wristbands.

Liu has become an expert in collecting and analyzing human health data using hardware, and by taking advantage of medical- and doctor-related resources.

Zhengan Keji is now raising funds in an angel round. It intends to spend the cash on product development, National Medical Products Administration authorization, medical research and product management.

36Kr, a Chinese tech news portal founded in Beijing in 2010, has more than 150 million readers worldwide. Nikkei announced a partnership with 36Kr on May 22, 2019.

For the Japanese version of this story, click here.

For the Chinese version, click here.

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