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ReleaseHub nabs $2.7M seed to give developers on-demand environments




Every developer relies on environments like testing, staging and production as they build software, but building them can be a time-consuming operation. ReleaseHub, an early stage startup that was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2020 cohort, wants to change that by providing a service to make environments available on demand.

Today, the company announced a $2.7 million seed, and also announced that service is generally available while they were at it. Sequoia led the round with participation from Y Combinator, Rogue VC, Liquid Capital and unnamed angel investors.

Company co-founder and CEO Tommy McClung says that every developer in the world has to use environments in their development workflow, but it remains for the most part a manual process.

“All of those environments are incredibly difficult to build. So the problem we’re solving is the ability to create those on demand. Instead of having to have a DevOps team that is responsible for managing, creating and maintaining them, the software does that and you can instantaneously create them,” McClung told me.

The service is integrated into GitHub and BitBucket, so you can build the environments on the fly as you need them based on templates for the various type. “The real value that we’re bringing to the table here is that we’re bringing that together in an almost virtualized way so that you can reproduce these environments on demand,” he said.

McClung who has been working in technology for over 20 years says this is a problem he’s seen over and over again at the various companies he’s worked at over the years. After running engineering at TrueCar, his most recent company, he decided to build a startup to solve the problem once and for all.

He notes that this is the second time he’s been a YC company and while the size and scope of the operation has changed since he last participated in 2009, the process remains much the same. For starters, there were 20 companies involved back then and over 200 this time around, but he says by breaking it down into smaller groups, it helped create the same feel.

The company launched at the beginning of last year, and spent last year building the product and working with design partners and beta customers ahead of today’s release. The plan is to offer a subscription service where companies pay by the number of environments they create.

ReleaseHub currently has 10 employees including the three founders with plans to add more, especially engineers to help continue building out the solution and adding more layers of functionality. As he does this, McClung says bringing in a diverse group of employees is a priority for the founding team.

“I mean I’ve been building companies for a long time and it has to be embedded into the DNA of the company at the very earliest stages, so making sure that you have diverse talent [from the start],” he said.

He says the plan is to stay 100% remote even after offices open again. “We were forced into being remote and actually we made it work really well for us. You know in a lot of ways it’s advantageous for work-life balance,” he said.

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Artificial Intelligence

Explorium scores $75M Series C just 10 months after B round




Without good data, it’s impossible to build an accurate predictive machine learning model. Explorium, a company that has been building a solution over the last several years to help data pros find the best data for a given model, announced a $75 million Series C today — just 10 months after announcing a $31 million Series B.

Insight Partners led today’s investment with participation from existing investors Zeev Ventures, Emerge, F2 Venture Capital, 01 Advisors and Dynamic Loop Capital. The company reports it has now raised a total of $127 million. George Mathew, managing partner at Insight, and former president and COO at Alteryx, will be joining the board, giving the company someone with solid operator experience to help guide them into the next phase.

Company co-founder and CEO Maor Shlomo, says that in spite of how horrible COVID has been from a human perspective, it has been a business accelerator for his company and he saw revenue quadruple last year (although he didn’t share specific numbers beyond that). “It’s related to the nature of our business. We’re helping enterprises and data practitioners find new data sources that can help them solve business challenges,” Sholmo explained.

He says that during the pandemic, a lot of companies had to find new data sources because the old data wasn’t especially helpful for predictive models. That meant that customers required new sources to give them visibility into the shifts and movements in the market to help them adjust and make decisions during pandemic. “And given that’s basically what our platform does in its essence, we’ve seen a lot of growth [over the past year],” he says.

With the revenue growth the company has been experiencing, it has been adding employees at rapid clip. When we spoke to Explorium last July, the company had 87 people. Today that number has grown to 130 with plans to get to 200 perhaps by the end of 2021 or early 2022, depending on how the business continues to grow.

The company has offices in Tel Aviv and San Mateo, California with plans to open a new office in New York City whenever it’s possible to do so. While Shlomo wants a flexible workplace, he’s not going fully remote with plans to allow people to work two days from home and three in the office as local rules allow.

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Start Ups

Help TechCrunch find the best email marketers for startups




Email marketing has been with us for decades, but today it has been refined to a science and an art form.

If you’re an early-stage founder, it is one of the best ways to build and grow your direct relationship with your customer. You know how fickle the platforms can be. You can’t afford to mess this up.

So when and how should you think about doing email marketing, versus all of your other frantic priorities?

Here at Extra Crunch, we’re helping you find the answers. Today, we’re launching a survey of founders who want to recommend a great email marketer or agency they have worked with to the rest of the startup world.

Fill out the survey here.

If you have someone to recommend, make sure to let us know: We’ll use your answers to create a freely available public database of experts in this domain on TechCrunch. We’ll feature the most helpful responses (anonymously if requested) so other founders can find the right people for them to work with.

The next step might be even more useful: We’ll provide EC subscribers with our own coverage of email marketing how-to topics and issues in more detail, based on our ongoing conversations with these experts.

In the coming months, you’ll see us dig into topics from great content production to optimizing deliverability, flow, timing, and design. We’ll also examine how to use email together with other marketing funnels, to improve your ROI on paid advertising efforts.

We’ll cover ongoing changes to the technology that affect the space, including the state of the art in email tools, email service provider platform changes, privacy laws, and much more.

If you’re a founder and you respond to the survey, you’ll also receive a discount to a new Extra Crunch subscription.

We’re particularly interested in what the expert did in the early to middle stages of the startup’s journey. Usually before Series C, for venture-backed companies. Recommendations wanted for both individuals and agencies.

If you’re a growth marketing expert, you’re encouraged to share the survey with your founder clients.

Just fill out the survey here!

Finally, for those who have been reading TechCrunch for at least a few years, you’ll remember a similar set of surveys we had begun around other categories of startup experts, including legal, brand and overall growth. After a hiatus to take care of a few other things, this survey marks the resumption of that initiative!

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Start Ups

The Briefing: Back Market Bags $335M, Tea Drops Raises Series A, And More




Here’s what you need to know today in startup and venture news, updated by the Crunchbase News staff throughout the day to keep you in the know.

Subscribe to the Crunchbase Daily

Back Market bags $335M to value the company at $3.2B

Back Market, an online marketplace for refurbished electronics, raised $335 million in Series D financing led by General Atlantic.

Joining General Atlantic in the round was Generation Investment Management, Goldman Sachs Growth Equity, Aglaé Ventures, Eurazeo and daphni. The new funding comes a year after Back Market brought in a $120 million venture round to give it a total of $511 million in funding, according to Crunchbase data. The investment values Back Market at $3.2 billion, the company said.

The new funding will enable the New York-based company, which says it has more than 1,500 sellers on its platform, to consolidate and build on its position in the refurbished electronics marketplace.

— Christine Hall

Fintech and e-commerce

Tea Drops drinks in $5M: Los Angeles direct-to-consumer tea maker Tea Drops raised $5 million in Series A funding led by BrandProject. The new investment brings the company’s total funding to $8.4 million, the company said. Tea Drops offers bagless tea that dissolves in your cup.

Lance banks $2.8M: Lance closed $2.8 million in seed funding to launch a business bank account for freelancers and side hustlers. Round participants included Barclays and BDMI. The capital is intended for product development and marketing. The company says there is no charge for a basic account, but offers a pro version for $12 per month.

— Christine Hall

Health care

Atonarp raises $50M: Tokyo-based Atonarp, a manufacturer of molecular sensing and diagnostics products for the health care, pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries, announced $50 million in Series D financing led by WRVI Capital. Atonarp uses light to test blood and other biological samples to produce a digital molecular snapshot. The new funding will enable the company to expand its operations and expedite the development and commercialization of its molecular diagnostics products.

SymphonyRM lands $25M: SymphonyRM, a Palo Alto-based health care company, announced $25 million in Series B funding led by TT Capital Partners. SymphonyRM enables health systems to transform how they acquire, engage and retain patients by creating an engagement model. The company intends to use the new funds on sales and marketing efforts and expand its use cases.

Artificial secures $21.5M: Artificial, a software company providing a first-of-its-kind lab automation platform, closed a $21.5 million Series A investment round led by M12. The company will use the investment to accelerate product development, hire more employees and further life science partnerships. Palo Alto-based Artificial provides a unifying software platform that orchestrates and captures everything in a lab, including all the manual tasks, so that the lab can turn its previously inefficient and error-prone processes into seamless, reproducible and scalable workflows.

emocha Health inks $6.2M: Digital health company emocha Health secured $6.2 million in Series A funding led by Claritas Health Ventures. The Baltimore-based company uses artificial intelligence to improve medication adherence among patients with chronic and infectious diseases.

— Christine Hall


Uptrust raises $2M: San Francisco-based Uptrust, a civic empowerment technology company working to keep people out of jail who shouldn’t be there, closed $2 million in a seed financing round backed by investors including the De-carceration Fund, Luminate and Stand Together Ventures Lab.

— Christine Hall

Illustration: Dom Guzman

Stay up to date with recent funding rounds, acquisitions, and more with the Crunchbase Daily.

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Fantasy fantasy sport Blaseball developers score $3M seed funding to go mobile




In the absence of a real baseball league, it is perhaps not surprising that a simulated one should grow popular during the troubled year 2020. But even so, the absurdist horror and minimalist aesthetic of Blaseball seem an unlikely success. The text-based fantasy fantasy league has attracted hundreds of thousands of players and now $3.4 million in funding to build up the game and go mobile.

If you’re unfamiliar with Blaseball, feel free to go check it out now and sign up — it’s free. You’ll probably get a better idea of what the game is from 30 seconds of browsing than the next couple paragraphs.

For those of you who’d rather read, however, Blaseball is a web-based fictional baseball-esque league where players can bet in-game currency on the outcomes. But this is where things get weird. The teams aren’t the Mariners or the Mets but the Moist Talkers and the Worms; players have names like Chorby Soul and Peanutiel Duffy; their stats include things like allergies, pregame rituals, and an inventory of RPG-like items.

Likewise, games — told through simple text summaries of the action like you might see in the corner of a sports site — involve hits, balls, and stealing, but also incineration, shaming, and secret bases. “Weather” might involve spontaneous blood transfusions between players, or birds that interfere with play.

In short, it’s totally ridiculous, utterly unpredictable, and very funny. This totally unique concoction of fantasy leagues, baseball satire, and cosmic horror has accrued a dedicated yet routinely puzzled fanbase over its 19 week-long seasons. And like so many hits, this one came as something of a shock to its creators.

Activity feed from the game Blaseball showing various absurd and normal events like hits and incinerations.

Image Credits: The Game Band

“We’re as surprised as you are,” said Sam Rosenthal, founder and CEO of The Game Band, which developed (and is developing) the game. “Blaseball was an experimental side project for the studio — we were in the middle of a pandemic, publishers were in a spending freeze, it was a scary time. We wanted to make a game that brings people together in this really isolating time.”

The idea for it came from banter at a real baseball game, where Rosenthal and a friend speculated about a league where the rules were “different and more chaotic.” Of course the rules of real-life baseball are continually being revised, but so far there haven’t been any resurrections of players incinerated by rogue umpires, free runs for home teams, or shrink rays.

While the resulting game-like product bears some resemblance to baseball, betting, and fantasy leagues, it’s much too weird and random to really be considered the same thing. That’s led to some friction as players who expect a more traditional experience lose coins on a game decided by, say, a bird pecking their team’s star hitter inside an enormous peanut shell, or a guaranteed home run because the batter ate magma.

The Hades Tigers… so hot right now. The roster shows a team’s current and permanent attributes, while players can work together to create change by voting weekly.

“Sometimes we have to remind the fans that this is a horror game,” Rosenthal admitted. The gameplay, as players discover in time, consists more in cooperation and guiding the league itself than in precision oddsmaking. “This is not a game about individual success but collective success. The mechanics of the game reward organization, fans banding together with other fans of their team.”

Using those coins to buy votes to determine how the most-idolized players are treated at the end of a season, for instance, could have huge repercussions on the next season. Ultimately the players are really participating in a sort of long-term alternative-reality game rather than a zany baseball sim, as the ominous announcements and events drive home now and again.

Next to the outcome of a match and the news that a player was walked to second base, you might learn that “Reality flickered in the Feedback” or see disembodied dialogue about the league or disordered cosmos.

It can be disconcerting and one may rightly wonder whether the creators have a narrative or goal in mind, or whether they’re just winging it and being weird for weirdness’s sake. I guessed the latter, but Rosenthal set me straight.

The Game Band logo on a flag behind several instruments.

Image Credits: The Game Band

“It is going somewhere,” he assured me. “There are a lot of plans, we have a ton of lore written. We literally have a writers’ room every day, usually about 3-4 hours long. But we need to stay flexible because there’s two other creators: the simulation, since we don’t know what will happen in the games themselves, and the fans. There are things we don’t know they’ll latch onto, emergent narratives like the reincarnation of Jaylen Hotdogs. We’re always learning, and we give ourselves a lot of room to backtrack or change things quickly if needed.”

What was never clear even to the developers, however, was whether the game would live long enough to see those plans come to fruition. Blaseball, being a side project built during strange days, was never envisioned as a big money maker. For a small game developer to have a runaway success on their hands but little ability to monetize that success, the stresses of continuing development and support can overtake the benefits of popularity.

“Since we didn’t really set it up from the get go to be profitable, we were just sort of slowly losing money,” said Rosenthal. “Fortunately our community has been really supportive through Patreon and sponsorships. But ultimately we wanted to make the game better and sustainable, and we wanted to pay our team what they deserve.”

Illustration showing how 51 percent of Blaseball players are on mobile.

Image Credits: The Game Band

The $3M seed round keeps the lights on, to begin with, but also lets The Game Band staff up, so the writers don’t have to break up a meeting early because one of them is doubling as product support and the site is breaking. More importantly, however, the team plans to make a native mobile app. More than half of Blaseball’s players (that is, the real ones, not Baby Triumphant and Wyatt Mason IV) are on mobile and Rosenthal admitted the mobile experience is “not great.”

The company comes from a mobile development background, he noted, so they know what they’re doing, but saw the web as the easiest platform to deploy on during the pandemic. Now they want to get mobile up and running, since the live, constantly shifting nature of the game fits well with the kind of updates sports and fantasy aficionados tend to sign up for. Who wouldn’t want to know right away that their favorite team has entered Party Time, or that their idolized player found a new piece of armor, or that a new non-physical law has been ratified?

Rosenthal said they resisted seeking funding to begin with due to a desire for independence, but was enthused about their choice of investor, Makers Fund, saying they actually understand Blaseball and have been partners rather than parents when it comes to moving the operation towards making money.

“The know we can’t just copy monetization from another game and put it in Blaseball, that would ruin the experience right away. They have an amazing network of people in the games industry, and at the end of the day they’re not prescriptive,” he said.

(They also gamely did not object to a line in the press release by the fictional Commissioner asserting that “Blaseball has acquired Makers Fund,” which says a lot.)

“We’re very cognizant that there are ways that free games can monetize that are detrimental to the community,” he continued. “So it will always be free to play and it will never be pay to win. Like, the Crabs are never going to run away with it because they’re the richest team. When we think about monetization we think about how it can benefit the community as a whole, not individuals.”

In the meantime the league slouches on, morphing from week to week in a live dialogue between players and developers. Don’t expect it go get any less weird, because the creators know that constant disorientation is part of the game’s charm.

Amazingly, Rosenthal even managed to suggest that Blaseball was, in the parlance of game design tropes, the Dark Souls of baseball simulators — “it [Dark Souls] gives you so little, it asks you to interpret and put a thesis together, to go linger on forums and talk with others about it. We wanted to create that kind of experience, and see how people would interpret this sort of weird, unknowable entity.”

They certainly got the weird and unknowable part right. You can try Blaseball out for yourself here.

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