As pandemic provides a wake-up call, smokers turn to startups to quit

A cigarette shop in Milan stays open during the coronavirus outbreak. (Annalisa Ranzoni/Getty Images News)

The novel coronavirus can take a deadly turn when it enters the lungs, causing pneumonia or other potentially life-threatening complications.

That’s particularly concerning for the more than 1 billion smokers worldwide, who face an increased risk of developing a serious case of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization. After months or years of a nicotine habit, quitting now may not help a smoker’s odds when it comes to the present danger. And yet, the crisis is serving as a wake-up call for many to pay better attention to their health.

As a result, smoking cessation startups are among the healthcare companies seeing their business improve since the outbreak started. Like telemedicine and mental health startups, this cohort finds itself operating at a critical moment, with demand spiking while the crisis grinds other sectors of the economy to a halt. More coronavirus news: Continuing coverage from PitchBook

Pivot offers a mobile app, along with coaching, nicotine-replacement therapy and a breath sensor that monitors carbon monoxide levels in the body. The Bay Area-based company, which raised a $25 million Series B in 2018, has seen increased interest tied to the pandemic, according to president and chief commercial officer Busy Burr.

Though the startup primarily sells to employers, this week it unveiled a free version of its mobile app available to anyone for six months.

San Francisco’s Quit Genius offers treatment for a range of addictions, including smoking tobacco and vaping, and likewise offers digital options such as an app, coaching, therapy and its own breath sensor. About 80% of the its business is with employers who offer Quit Genius as an employer benefit, while 20% is direct-to-consumer, said co-founder and CEO Yusuf Sherwani. The company closed an $11 million Series A led by Octopus Ventures in mid-March and is actively hiring despite the current economic turmoil. New corporate customers can now sign up for Quit Genius for free during March and April.

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Sherwani is a medical doctor, as are many of his friends and family members. He said their experience informed the decision to offer the company’s service free for two months.

“Seeing them go above and beyond, volunteering to work in an emergency medicine setting to do what they can for the crisis made me feel compelled to play my part,” Sherwani said.

Direct-to-consumer startups have seen a boost as well. Lucy, which sells nicotine gum and lozenges, has seen sales spike 75% in the past month, according to investor Catharine Dockery of Vice Ventures. Lucy, based in Los Angeles, represents the firm’s largest investment and the one that has seen the most growth during the pandemic, rising above investments in the CBD, alcohol and sexual wellness spaces, Dockery said.

“A lot of people are looking for harm reduction choices, and a Juul or a vape probably isn’t the harm reduction that you’re looking for if you’re looking to not inhale,” Dockery said.

Increased demand for Lucy’s products began in early March, tracking the timeline of the urgency of the US response to coronavirus, according to CEO David Renteln. The company raised a $10 million Series A round in February led by RRE Ventures, so it’s not seeking any new fundraising soon. Nonetheless, Renteln said he has seen some increased investor interest.

“We’ve been trying to get people to move away from smoking since the inception of the company, and so our mission hasn’t changed,” he said. “Coronavirus has obviously made the relevance of that mission even more front and center.”

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