Sekai secures Naruto’s license to develop consumer apps for anime fans

Just like in your favorite anime, this is the story of a young group of twentysomethings who started with nothing, traveled the world and ended up with a global license to develop official Naruto consumer apps.

Founded in early 2022, French startup Sekai describes itself as a studio that wants to create entertainment experiences with official anime licenses. Unlike Marvel superheroes or the Harry Potter franchise, the anime and manga industry has barely branched out to other forms of entertainment. Sure, there are versus fighting video games from Bandai Namco (or Sega, Konami…). Sure, you can buy plastic miniatures. But that’s about it.

“Today, there are 600 million anime fans in the world. And it's an industry that's really controlled in Japan. The original manga is produced in Japan, the anime is produced in Japan, distributed in Japan, and all the merchandising is produced in Japan,” Sekai co-founder and CEO Samy Therain told TechCrunch.

And yet, Bleach, Dragon Ball, Naruto and One Piece are some of the most popular entertainment franchises of all time — and not just in Japan. That’s why Sekai spent the first 15 months of its existence negotiating with TV Tokyo to secure official rights, leading to this deal around Naruto.

We asked for more details about this process but the company wouldn’t share anything else for now. More details will likely emerge as the company works toward its first app release.

So what can Sekai do exactly, under the terms of the licensing deal? Sekai can develop consumer mobile apps with Naruto’s characters and storylines. These can be interactive entertainment experiences with a social element. The company is still actively developing its first app.

“We're testing a lot of social experiences right now. That's why I can't tell you exactly what's coming out right away, because we're still in the experimentation phase. But the goal is to make people feel like ninjas, essentially,” Therain said.

At this point, you might be thinking about Pokémon Go, the mobile game that instantly became a viral hit. “Niantic came up with the perfect IP-fit. They created something where the goal is to catch Pokémon. And it worked extremely well,” noted Therain, explaining that Sekai also tried to build its own GPS-based interactive entertainment app. However, it didn’t perform as well in the world of Naruto. And while it was an early inspiration, he confirmed the first Naruto app isn’t going to be a Pokémon Go clone.

Given the number of illegal Naruto copycats and clones in the App Store and Play Store, there's evidently strong interest in bringing Naruto's content to apps.

“When we first started testing in Canada, we were shut down by TikTok, Meta, everyone, because everyone said, ‘No, you don't have the license’ -- IP infringement,” said Therain. "And we said, ‘We do, look, the contract’s here’ and everything. And it took us three months to get unblocked, because nobody believed us."

Sekai's license also enables it to release digital collectibles. The startup can also organize real-life events and fan conventions. And the license covers the entire world -- except Japan and China.

Sekai isn’t going to do everything in-house. But they have the final say on the Naruto license. “We're absolute fans. So our aim is to really control the way things are done and validate them with Shueisha [Naruto’s publishing company]. We don't rule out working with people who are experts in their own field to do a particular thing,” Therain said.

The startup has already raised €10 million ($10.9 million at current exchange rates) from Skycatcher, with 776 (Alexis Ohanian’s fund), Cygni, Kima Ventures, Makers Fund, Motier Ventures, New Wave and TV Tokyo also participating. Laurent Ritter and Alexandre Yazdi from Voodoo; Nicolas Julia and Adrien Montfort from Sorare; Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda; French rapper Orelsan; athletes Rudy Gobert and Randal Kolo Muani are also investors.

Naruto is just the first step as Sekai doesn’t want to be known exclusively as “the Naruto company.” It plans to roll out a new IP every year. “Why are we called Sekai? Sekai means ‘world’ in Japanese,” added Therain, underscoring the team's ambition.