Prisma raises $40M for its open source ‘Rosetta Stone’ for database languages

When it comes to building databases and other backend software development, different organizations and developers do not always speak the same language. Today a startup called Prisma that’s built a platform — based around a server-side library — that lets users write in the languages that are most intuitive to them, but lets that work carry across their organizations’ wider ecosystem of apps, is announcing $40 million in funding to continue expanding its business.

Starting out focusing on GraphQL, today the company’s tech works — in the words of CEO Søren Bramer Schmidt (who co-founded the startup with Johannes Schickling in Berlin) — “the layer below that” and supports JavaScript and TypeScript languages, as well as databases in PostgreSQL, MySQL, SQLite, SQL Server, MongoDB and CockroachDB. Its open source-based Prisma ORM, launched last year, now has more than 150,000 developers using it for Node.js and TypeScript projects, growing at an average rate of 10% every month.

Schmidt said the plan is to increase investment in that open source tool to bring on more users, with a view to building its first revenue-generating products. Those commercial tools, which Prisma describes simply for now as an “Application Data Platform”, should be getting launched later this year.

It’s the traction that it’s had for the open source tools and the plans for its first commercial steps that have attracted investors. Altimeter is leading this round, with Amplify Partners and Kleiner Perkins — a previous investor — also participating. It also, notably, has some founders backing it from other “companies in the ecosystem” that are a sign of how Prisma is finding its feet in that wider landscape of platforms and tools. They include the founders of Vercel, PlanetScale, GitHub and SourceGraph.

(Small side note: Schmidt noted that one of the reasons that Kleiner Perkins led its seed round in 2018 was because it was hard to open doors with European backers as a startup that was pre-revenue. Back then the company also assumed it would eventually have to completely relocate to the U.S. to continue growing. Fast-forward to today, and he acknowledges that a lot has evolved, and they are happily scaling as a business in Berlin.)

Prisma positions itself as a kind of Rosetta Stone in the world of development — or in the metaphor of prisms, an object that lets one source of information be refracted into different parts. As Schmidt describes it, after a period of essentially only three languages, there was a proliferation of languages in programming and database development that emerged around 15 years ago, part of a larger wave of programming innovation.

“But then the older, boring ones saw all the good ideas and those started to get incorporated into them,” he said. For example, JavaScript has become a much stronger language over the years. At the same time, though, database language proliferation has continued, he said, helped by the move to cloud computing and a preference for using specialized databases for particular purposes. “It’s much easier to host and operate a variety of databases,” he said.

Larger tech organizations like Google and Twitter have invested a lot of money into tooling internally to work around this situation, producing “very good tools,” Schmidt said. But when it comes to an organization that is smaller, even a tech company, “they may have built something too but they won’t be able to continue to invest in it to keep it updated. They have sub-par tooling.” Or, nothing at all: “It’s a lot of learning, and it’s hard to be proficient,” he added.

That is where Prisma tooling comes in: It essentially helps people remain compliant with various languages as they code, query and manage these databases in a more efficient way that speaks to how developers work today.

Schmidt notes that the Google or Twitter approach — building internally — for the moment remains its biggest competition. This is a little ironic, since it was internal building to solve the exact same issue at a previous employer, Trustpilot, that led him to the idea of creating a product to solve the issue for everyone.

“The way developers build applications is evolving,” said Jamin Ball, a partner at Altimeter, in a statement. “Prisma breaks down barriers between frontend and backend teams, and between data engineers, developers, and business analysts. The Prisma ORM is a product developers love, and an important step towards modernizing full stack development.”