Othram and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have teamed up to create a modern forensic sequencing lab program. Getty Images

Houston-area's first-privately held forensic sequencing laboratory has partnered with The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to create an academic program that will provide forensic training to genome scientists that will help them crack previously unsolved criminal cases.

Othram was created in 2018 specifically to apply the power of modern DNA parallel sequences to forensic evidence. Its new academic program partnership is aimed at training Molecular Genetic Technology (MGT) graduate students in the newest laboratory techniques and technology for the recovery and analysis of human DNA from deteriorated or contaminated materials.

"Because this field is so new, there aren't many individuals who are experts in both genomics and forensic science," David Mittelman, CEO and founder of Othram, tells InnovationMap. "We wanted to collaborate with M.D. Anderson who has a great genetic testing program already to help students learn about how to apply current techniques that are being used to solve cases that no one else can solve."

MGT students, who study the role of genetics in medicine, will be able to train with Othram experts using new technological advances such as the ability to harness whole-genome shotgun sequencing for the unique needs that forensic evidence demands like human identification.

"The Texas Medical Center is the best in the world, specifically for genomics training so it seemed like a natural fit," says Mittelman. "Especially since we want to attract and expose students to this new area of forensics as a possible outlet."

The use of new technology is what sets Othram apart, last year they helped solved a 103-year old mystery of a headless torso found in an Idaho cave, using their Forensic-Grade Genome SequencingTM technology. The DNA extraction and sequencing lab at Othram distill the sample DNA down to a sequence, which with the help of computer software, can be analyzed to reconstruct the whole genome of an individual's DNA.

Then the DNA is digitized and matched to other databases such as the FBI's Combined DNA Index System to cross-reference for a DNA match. With Othram's ability to construct whole genomes from previously unusable DNA samples, they can further the search to identify human remains or identify suspects from living relatives.

"There is no one currently leveraging whole genome sequencing right now like Othram," says Mittelman. "There's a whole range of opportunities from taking a look at the whole genome from ancestry to relationship testing and physical trait prediction."

The unique learning experience for MGT students will integrate classroom lectures, laboratory demonstrations, and technological experiences. Mittleman says that the academic program partnership will enable a new generation of forensic genomics scientists to digitize the nation's DNA evidence and solve cold cases.

Brittany Barreto wants Pheramor to be known for its science-based dating expertise. Karla Martin/Pheramor

Houston entrepreneur positions her company as a leader in online dating

Digital romance

Brittany Barreto was years ahead of the marketplace when she had her idea for a DNA-based dating app, now called Pheramor. At the time, online dating mostly consisted of eHarmony and sending your DNA through the mail to anyone just wasn't done.

"I had the idea at 18 — almost 10 years ago — and, at that time, 23AndMe was shut down because the FDA wasn't comfortable with it," Barreto says. "But then in 2016, everyone is using dating apps and everyone is sending their spit in the mail. It was a perfect time to introduce a techy way to find love."

Even better, now Pheramor's potential users have swiping fatigue, Barreto says, and are going on chronically bad first dates. For Pheramor, this provided an opportunity, and Barreto took it.

Since its nation-wide launch in September, Pheramor has seen over 5000 messages sent on the app, resulting in 19 happy couples to date. Pheramor has even been nominated for Best New Dating App by iDate, an international conference where Barreto recently gave a keynote speech.

Pheramor works like any other dating app — except instead of swiping through endless possibilities, you see your estimated compatibility with each person based on DNA and interests that are either data mined off your social media or you manually plug into the app. Users first download the app, create an account, and request a kit.

While the B-to-C side of things has been a great approach for Pheramor, the technology has attracted interest from other dating apps. Barreto says she looks to expand into B-to-B opportunities where establishing dating companies can use her technology across the world. She made this clear in here iDate keynote address.

"I said there that if you want to factor in DNA to your dating app, you come to us. We are a B-to-C dating app, but we can also offer our genetic testing services for your platform," she says. "We have a letter of intent with a dating app in Russia. We're speaking with high-end matchmakers."

Barreto sat down with InnovationMap to discuss Pheramor's origins and what she has up her sleeves.

InnovationMap: When did you first have the idea for Pheramor?

Brittany Barreto: I first had the idea when I was 18 at Drew University, where I did my undergraduate research in New Jersey. We were in a genetics seminar, and we were learning about genetic-based human attraction — essentially how scientists for decades can predict who's attracted to whom because of your DNA. I raised my hand and asked if I could make a gene-harmony because of this. The professor and the class kind of laughed, but I said, "No, I'm serious, could I use this science for dating?" The professor said, "I mean, I guess you could." So I thought, one day I'll make gene-harmony.

IM: How did you get involved in the Houston innovation scene?

BB: I finished college and came down here to Houston to get my PhD at Baylor College of Medicine, and I just always had this idea, and I kept thinking about it. When I was working on my PhD, I realized I just had way too much personality to work in a lab my whole life. I started taking some entrepreneurship classes and networking at startup events thinking that I could land a career at a biotech company doing sales or innovation. All of the sudden, people started telling me that I had the founder blood, and I thought well I only have one really crazy idea for a DNA-based dating app, and people told me it was a good idea.

IM: What was your first move launching the company?

BB: I joined an accelerator in the medical center through Enventure. They have about 2,000 members — a lot of PHDs and grad students with a lot of great ideas who have no clue how to start a company. So, Enventure puts on evening classes for free, networking events, brainstorming sessions, and the accelerator. I pitched my idea, and got accepted. That's where I found my co-founder Bin Huang. Between January and March of 2017 we were in the accelerator every Thursday.

IM: How did you first get funding?

BB: We did our Demo Day in March at TMCx, and we won. A few angel investors came up to us after words with the idea for an open round, and Bin and I realized this wasn't a class project any more. This was real. We closed our first round of funding in July of 2017, while Bin and I were full-time students. We met our goal, and then we had another round of funding that was oversubscribed.

IM: When did you start accepting swabs and daters?

BB: Our first swab actually came from a swab party I had at my apartment. I invited about 50 friends over, and we had a party. We had a swab station set up in my bedroom and people waited in line in the hallway. That was our first 50 swabs. It was in the spring of 2017, right after our Demo Day.

IM: So, how does Pheramor work?

BB: The science behind attraction based on your DNA is that people are attracted to one another when their immune systems are different — opposites attract is biologically true. This is what all of the animal kingdom does. When we were cavewomen and cavemen, we didn't know who was our uncle and who was our cousin, so we used our nose to figure out who is genetically diverse compared to us, and if you're genetically diverse, then you're probably not my relative, and therefore we'd have healthier children. So, that's the baseline of attraction. We have these HLA genes that make up our immune system, and your pheromones are giving off essentially like a fingerprint of what your immune system is.

At Pheramor, we look at those 11 genes of attraction — we don't look at anything else. Some people might be concerned that I'll know their ancestry or their diseases and sell their data, but we don't look at that. I actually don't even know your gender based on the swab.

My co-founder and I have written this machine-learning algorithm that looks at the genes and figures out quantitatively how likely it is for you to have physical chemistry with one another. Then, in the app, you can have a score and match report to see that.

IM: What were some of the early challenges?

BB: The biggest one when I was 18 was that the market wasn't ready. I called it "geneharmony" because eHarmony and Match were the only players in the game back then. Also, sending your spit in the mail was really weird. It's not so weird any more.

The next one was being a PhD student working in a field that expects everyone to go into academia. There's not enough academic jobs for scientists anymore. We have to start branching out — work in biotech, become consultants, work in other industries. But the issue is there's an old guard in academia. I had a mentor — a woman I worked for — who had only ever trained academics and thinks that that's what scientists do. So, I didn't experience a lot of support in school for starting a company. It's super cool and I'm successful, and it gives Baylor College of Medicine a great name, but when I was in there, I kept Pheramor a secret. I had to essentially sneak around to do it. Get to the lab really early in the mornings to start experiments so I could leave early for investor meetings or hide in the storage closet to make calls to investors.That was definitely difficult.

Another challenge was starting to pitch and being called the "student team." Right off the bat, they felt like they were doing us a favor for letting us pitch. It was cute. So, I had to start doing some strategies to make my company seem more valuable because I was going uphill. I would wear a lab coat and if any other scientist wore a lab coat to a presentation with scientists, it would be weird, but no investor ever asked me why I was in a lab coat.

IM: A year and a half later since your first swab party, how have things changed?

BB: It's funny, I was just thinking a while back about having a Halloween party and thinking, "we could swab people!" So, I'm not above swab parties. For most of 2017, we did a lot of grassroots efforts. We were at Pride Festival, swab parties at bars, Day For Night — some were successful, and others were a waste of money. It was a science of figuring out what works. There's so much education we have — what the swab is, how it works, etc. In person, we got to explain all that and hear what their questions were and take that and turn it into a FAQ section on our site.

IM: Where can people use your app?

BB: We're nationwide. We're actually downloaded in every state in the country. We did what the market told us to. One day I came into the office and asked my co-founder why we wanted to only be in Houston. He told me that people want to date other daters. And I asked him if we knew that or if we just think that. We never actually asked them. So, we surveyed our user base and asked them if they had highly compatible numbers with someone in, say, Chicago, would they want to know. And something like 89 percent said yes. We realized that our consumers are 28- to 38-year-old singles seeking commitment. They are highly educated and have really great paying jobs, and they travel a lot anyways. So, we opened it up on September 7, and in 30 days we saw over 50 percent growth in our user base.

IM: Are you marketing in specific metros?

BB: At first, we did a blanket marketing effort. Then, we looked into which cities had the lowest CAD — the cost to acquire a download. New York City and Boston are the cheapest. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami are also cheaper than Houston.

IM: What are some goals for you and Pheramor?

BB: Short term, it's to continue to improve our app. We're slowly building it in response to what consumer feedback says. I also want to build our team. With the next round of funding, that's what I'm focused on. Our CMO and CFO are part time, and I want them full time. I also want to be hitting critical mass in Boston, New York, LA, Miami. We have a few hundred people in each of those cities, but I want to make those to be a really healthy number.

And something the market has asked for a lot is testing for couples. So, we have a we a website that's about to launch called "WeHaveChemistry.com" for couples to buy two kits and receive a report.

As an academic in genetics, I had to take a lot of ethics classes — for good reason. We've really taken a stance here at Pheramor saying that we will only use genetic data for good. We do not sell our data to anyone, except one organization with the user's consent. The organization is Gift of Life, a national bone marrow registry. The genes for attraction are also genes that fight leukemia and lymphoma. To register to be a bone marrow donor, you have to get your cheek swabbed and you have to get your HLA genes typed. That's what we're doing as a dating app. So through our app, you can consent to be a donor. That to me is how you could use data for good. We're finding people love, and we're finding a girl with leukemia a bone marrow donor.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Pheramor takes users' DNA and social media habits and matches them with compatible partners. Courtesy of Pheramor

Houston DNA-based dating app expands nationwide, launches next funding round

From swiping to swabbing

Houston singles can find their perfect match — even if it's someone across the country. Houston-based Pheramor — a DNA-based dating app — is available for download in every state.

Brittany Barreto, Pheramor's co-founder and CEO, has a PhD in genetics from Baylor College of Medicine. She first had the idea in a genetics seminar when she was 18 and in college, but that was almost 10 years ago, and the market wasn't ready. Now, she says singles have swipe fatigue from the existing and ineffective dating apps, and it's also relatively normal now to send your spit in the mail thanks to 23AndMe.

Pheramor users download the app and request a test kit. After a few cheek swabs, they send it back to Barreto and her team and they identify 11 immune system genes and upload the data to the user's profile. The app then compares the genes to other users to give a compatibility score.

"The science behind attraction based on your DNA is that people are attracted to one another when their immune systems are different — opposites attract is biologically true," Barreto says. "When we were cavewomen and cavemen, we didn't know who was our uncle and who was our cousin, so we used our nose to figure out who is genetically diverse compared to us. If you're genetically diverse, then you're probably not my relative, and therefore we'd have healthier children."

Pheramor also calculates a social score based on a questionnaire or a data mine of a user's social media. The overall compatibility score uses both the DNA and social compatibility scores.

The app launched in Houston in March to a great reception of local singles, but, a few months later, Barreto realized nothing was holding them back from expanding nationwide.

"We surveyed our user base and asked them if they had highly compatible numbers with someone in, say, Chicago, would they want to know," Barreto says. "And something like 89 percent said yes."

Pheramor users are usually between 28 and 38, have good paying jobs, and are seeing commitment, Barreto says. Most of them travel around a lot already.

"We opened it up on September 7, and in 30 days we saw over 50 percent growth in our user base."

The company has zeroed in on a few key metros where advertising dollars go a long way for generating user downloads; Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami have all been great markets for Pheramor.

With the user base growing, Barreto is focused on growing her team. Pheramor's current round of funding launched November 1, and with the capital raised, she hopes to be able to make the team's CFO and chief marketing officer both full time.

Pheramor is also working on using its custom algorithm as a resource to other existing dating services worldwide as well as for couples who want to see their compatibility score with their current partners.

"A long-term goal that's coming to fruition a lot faster than I thought is Pheramor being a leader in genetic testing for romance," Barreto says.

Science of love

Karla Martin/Pheramor

Pheramor CEO and co-founder, Brittany Barreto, first thought of a DNA-based dating company when she was in undergraduate student studying biology. The idea stuck with her as she went through her genetics doctoral program at Baylor College of Medicine.

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Here's how far Houston's robust population of 'super commuters' drive to and from work every day

on the road again

If you’re a workday commuter in the Houston metro area, you may be among the many motorists who’ve cursed the snarled traffic on I-610/West Loop Freeway. This route routinely takes the crown as the most clogged roadway in Texas.

But imagine if you were one of the nearly 80,000 workers in the Houston area who travel at least 90 minutes each way for their jobs. That’s an even more gripe-worthy commuting scenario.

U.S. Census Bureau data gathered by Apartment List shows that as of 2022 in the Houston area, 79,645 workers were tagged as “super commuters.” These workers represent three percent of all commuters in the region.

The Houston area’s 2022 number is down slightly from the pre-pandemic year of 2019, when 82,878 workers across the region were super commuters, according to Apartment List.

Igor Popov, chief economist at Apartment List, says 3.7 million American workers spent at least 90 minutes traveling each way for their jobs in 2022. These extreme commutes are becoming more commonplace as suburban populations rise and employers pull back on remote work, he says.

Nationally, the number of super commuters jumped by 593,000 in 2022 compared with 2021, when the pandemic caused the figure to plummet by more than 1.5 million.

“Generally, super commuting is most common for transit users, workers who live on the fringes of the metropolitan area, or those who commute to separate metros entirely,” Popov says.

Super commuting is also common among high-income workers who are willing to travel longer distances for higher-wage jobs, according to Popov.

A recent study by Stanford University and travel data provider INRIX mostly aligns with the Census Bureau data cited by Apartment List.

Since the pandemic, the study says, the share of one-way commutes covering at least 40 miles has gone up in the country’s 10 largest metros, including Houston. In the Houston area, the share of one-way super commutes, which the study defines as those over 75 miles, grew 18 percent from 2019-20 to 2023-24.

Among the 10 areas examined in the study, a typical two-way super commute lasts nearly four hours and 40 minutes.

Experts: What Houston startup founders need to know about conducting a successful IPO

guest column

Home to a wealth of world-changing innovations and a highly skilled labor pool, Houston has attracted startups and digital tech firms for years. Today, the city stands at the forefront of a promising era with seven Houston startups beginning the year strong with more than $380 million in venture funding, and the city ranked among the top emerging startup ecosystems in North America

Houston-based startups planning their exit strategies have good reason to be optimistic about an initial public offering, or IPO, market that is expected to grow in 2024. After a two-year slump in startup investing, some market watchers are predicting that the IPO window may reopen as the economy improves and inflation and interest rates cool.

But good timing requires good readiness. The window of opportunity for preparation now appears to be a microwindow. As any company that went public at the peak of the dot-com or post-COVID booms can attest, preparation is essential to quickly take action when the time is right. Hitting that microwindow will require that IPO-bound Houston companies be strategic about their IPO readiness planning. A lack of planning can result in an IPO experience that is not well planned, and potentially a missed opportunity altogether.

It’s unclear when the next IPO window will open, or for how long the window will remain open, but it could happen quicker than expected. This unpredictability suggests that Houston startups seeking to go public should start their legal, financial, and regulatory planning now. The important period for many companies planning an IPO begins six to 18 months prior to listing and lasts until the six months post-IPO.

Readying an IPO

We gained several insights from our discussions with CEOs and CFOs who have effectively navigated IPOs recently to provide insights for companies contemplating going public when the next microwindow opens. A company’s comprehensive readiness plan can be key to performing well in the market, whether it is up or down. Summarized below are common key areas that challenged many C-Suite executives in being a public company and, in hindsight, areas they wished they had addressed earlier in the process.

  1. Internal forecasting. Internal forecasting is paramount. In fact, it’s one of the primary takeaways cited in our conversations with the C-suite execs who went through the IPO process. Houston companies on an IPO track should be prepared to provide accurate forecasting and timely fulfillment of projections. Missing projections can result in significant regulatory repercussions.
  1. Key performance indicators and non-GAAPmeasures. Take reasonable steps towards performing a comprehensive benchmarking study to determine relevant KPIs and non-GAAP measures and metrics to report upon; be ready with the frameworks in place to report upon during quarterly and annual reporting.
  1. Growth story. The ability to communicate the company’s growth story can be essential to an effective IPO. Company leaders should be able to clearly convey topics such as the company’s growth, vision and strategy, its plans for improving performance metrics, the market opportunity, its competitive edge, and how its product or services will meet market demand. Meetings with analysts and other market influencers are also necessary to gain investor support. The executives we talked to said that when they did not invest time in this awareness-building step, they often found themselves rushing to get the word out as the offering date closed in.
  1. Finance infrastructure and human capital. Understand the infrastructure and operating model required to operate as a public company, along with the human capital necessary to sustain operations. Identifying the necessary skillsets and bandwidth within the team supports a smoother IPO process. Collaborating with experienced, independent advisors is also vital. These advisors assist in organizing the process, outlining SEC reporting requirements, updating SEC-compliant financial reporting, preparing Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) and pro forma financial information, and offering guidance throughout the pre-IPO preparation.
  1. Governance. IPO-bound companies need to anticipate new corporate governance requirements as a publicly traded entity, particularly in terms of their board of directors. Proper governance and board oversight can be essential to support the quality of financial statements produced by management. Executives told us that recruiting the right board members is often a significant pre-IPO challenge. Identifying these members early is crucial, as the right resources may not be available later.

Closing thoughts

If you are among those companies looking to go public in the near future, now is the time to get your house in order. Companies are often surprised to discover how much preparation it truly takes to operate as a public company. In fact, we typically recommend starting the preparation journey 18 to 24 months before the anticipated public listing date. Simply stated, if you wait until the IPO window opens before gearing up, you likely will be gearing up for the next window.

Deloitte’s complimentary IPO

SelfAssess tool can help you gauge your ability to go public with a tailored assessment. The tool provides you with useful insights and identifies potential areas for improvement based on the feedback you provide.

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Will Braeutigam is the U.S. capital markets transactions leader at Deloitte & Touche LLP. Laura Evans is audit and assurance partner at Deloitte & Touche LLP.

Former Shopify exec joins Houston scale-up e-commerce software company

joining the team

Houston-based e-commerce software and services company Cart.com has hired a former Shopify executive as its chief people officer.

Before joining Cart.com, Lani Doyle was chief HR officer at Strategic Solutions Group, a provider of health care software. Previously, she was vice president of HR and people operations at 6 River Systems, a provider of software and robotics for warehouses. Prior to that, Doyle was head of talent development and operations at Shopify, an e-commerce platform for businesses that posted revenue of $7.1 billion in 2023.

Cart.com is one of the fastest-growing companies in commerce today, and I’m excited to partner with our teams to help drive growth and scalability,” Doyle says in a news release. “I am eager to contribute to shaping our culture and developing programming that supports and elevates high-performing teams, ensuring we achieve our ambitious goals.”

Omair Tariq, founder and CEO of Cart.com, describes Doyle as a “strategic leader” who will help develop the startup’s continually growing team. The company, founded in 2020 in Houston, employs more than 1,600 people.

“Her deep expertise in HR strategy and talent development will be instrumental as we accelerate our growth trajectory and foster a dynamic workplace culture,” says Frank Parker, chief operating officer of Cart.com.

In February, Cart.com made another high-level executive move by promoting Joe Barth from senior vice president of fulfillment to chief logistics officer.

Cart.com has more than 6,000 customers. The company handles more than 75 million orders per year from 14 fulfillment centers in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Tariq joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share a bit about his company's growth and its relocation from Austin back to Houston.

"I think Austin served its purpose. It certainly allowed us to be in the limelight in all the right ways, and I'm grateful for it," Tariq says on the show. "But once we got to a point, once we closed our series C round and became a unicorn ... I think we're now at a scale where the infrastructure that Houston provides is probably something that will be more attractive and useful for us in the long term."