Screen shot from SmartNews.com

SmartNews, the Japanese news discovery app that has amassed 20 million global monthly active users, has raised $28 million in its latest funding round, bringing the company's valuation to $1.1 billion, executives tell Axios.

Why it matters: It's notable that in today's bleak news market where U.S. tech giants like Google and Facebook dominate most news referral traffic online, a Japanese-based firm has been able to gain traction. SmartNews is one of the few news-related startups to achieve "unicorn" status, or a valuation of over $1 billion, in years.

Details: The round, which is the company's Series E round, is being led Japan Post Capital Co., Ltd., a Japanese private equity fund management firm. To date, the company has raised $116 million and brings in revenue of "9 figures" annually, according to SmartNews head of U.S. marketing Fabien-Pierre Nicolas. 

  • While the company does hire editors to ensure quality control on the platform, most of the money raised will be going toward technology development, says Nicolas.
  • SmartNews is looking to hire more engineers to bolster its U.S. product, as well as to penetrate other markets with research and development centers, like Shanghai.

Between the lines: The company is currently the largest news aggregation service in Japan, but has been rapidly growing its U.S. footprint.

  • Axios reported in February that SmartNews had quadrupled its U.S. audience over the past 2 years and now drives more traffic to publishers than Apple News, according to traffic news referral service Parse.ly.
  • SmartNews is most similar in product to Apple News in the U.S., but it's free instead of charging users a monthly subscription. The company makes the majority of its revenue from advertising, and executives say they have no plans to turn it into a subscription product.

By the numbers: According to Nicolas, the company had 10 million monthly active users of its app last July and it has doubled that number to 20 million in roughly a year.

  • It works with roughly 400 U.S.-based news and information publishers, a few of which have told Axios that the traffic bumps from SmartNews are significant, but the revenue sharing operation could be stronger.
  • Nicolas says that it works with about 400 news partners in Japan as well, although they count publishers a bit differently in that market.

The big picture: SmartNews is the latest Asian news aggregation app to make it big.

  • Toutiao, which is owned by TikTok's parent company ByteDance, raised $2 billion in funds at an over $20 billion valuation in 2017. It reportedly has more than 200 million daily active users.
  • Qutoutiao, the 3-year-old news and video aggregation startup backed by Tencent, recently announced that it is receiving a $171 million convertible loan from Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba. The company went public in the U.S. last year with roughly 50 million monthly active users and a market value of $2.1 billion.
  • DailyHunt, NewsPoint and others have also gained traction in recent years in India. DailyHunt has raised $98 million to date.

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