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.

------

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.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

How this Houston innovator's tech is gearing up to impact EV charging, energy transition

houston innovators podcast episode 172

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, existing electrical grid infrastructure needs to be able to keep up. Houston-based Revterra has the technology to help.

"One of the challenges with electric vehicle adoption is we're going to need a lot of charging stations to quickly charge electric cars," Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "People are familiar with filling their gas tank in a few minutes, so an experience similar to that is what people are looking for."

To charge an EV in ten minutes is about 350 kilowatts of power, and, as Jawdat explains, if several of these charges are happening at the same time, it puts a tremendous strain on the electric grid. Building the infrastructure needed to support this type of charging would be a huge project, but Jawdat says he thought of a more turnkey solution.

Revterra created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The technology pulls from the grid, but at a slower, more manageable pace. Revterra's battery acts as an intermediary to store that energy until the consumer is ready to charge.

"It's an energy accumulator and a high-power energy discharger," Jawdat says, explaining that compared to an electrical chemical battery, which could be used to store energy for EVs, kinetic energy can be used more frequently and for faster charging.

Jawdat, who is a trained physicist with a PhD from the University of Houston and worked as a researcher at Rice University, says some of his challenges were receiving early funding and identifying customers willing to deploy his technology.

Last year, Revterra raised $6 million in a series A funding round. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

The funding has gone toward growing Revterra's team, including onboarding three new engineers with some jobs still open, Jawdat says. Additionally, Revterra is building out its new lab space and launching new pilot programs.

Ultimately, Revterra, an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, hopes to be a major player within the energy transition.

"We really want to be an enabling technology in the renewable energy transition," Jawdat says. "One part of that is facilitating the development of large-scale, high-power, fast-charging networks. But, beyond that, we see this technology as a potential solution in other areas related to the clean energy transition."

He shares more about what's next for Revterra on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Report: Houston's hot medical office market might be on track to cool

by the numbers

Houston’s medical office market is on a roll.

A report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows net absorption and transaction volume saw healthy gains in 2022:

  • The annual absorption total of 289,215 square feet was 50.5 percent higher than the five-year average.
  • Transaction volume notched a 31.7 percent year-over-year increase.

Meanwhile, net rents held steady at $26.92 per square foot, up 1.3 percent from the previous year. The fourth-quarter 2022 vacancy rate stood at 15.9 percent.

Despite those numbers, the report suggests a slowdown in medical office rentals may be underway.

“Tenants who may have previously considered building out or expanding their lease agreements are now in a holding pattern due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates,” the report says. “These factors are having a direct impact on financial decisions when it comes to lease renewals, making it more likely that tenants will remain in their existing location for the foreseeable future.”

Still, the report notes “a number of bright spots for the future of healthcare in Houston.” Aside from last year’s record-high jump in sales volume, the report indicates an aging population coupled with a growing preference for community-based treatment “will lift demand even higher in coming years.”

The report shows that in last year’s fourth quarter, 527,083 square of medical office space was under construction in the Houston area, including:

  • 152,871 square feet in the Clear Lake area.
  • 104,665 square feet in the South submarket.
  • 103,647 square feet in Sugar Land.
Last fall, JLL recognized Houston as a top city for life sciences. According to that report, the Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Houston financial services firm announces acquisition, plans to grow

M&A radar

A Houston-based financial services company has made a recent strategic acquisition that gives it a new banking status.

LevelField Financial, which is creating a platform that combines traditional banking and digital asset products and services, announced this week that it is acquiring Burling Bank, an FDIC-insured, Illinois state-chartered bank. According to the company, once it receives regulatory approval, "LevelField will be the first full-service bank to offer fully compliant traditional banking and digital asset services."

The financial terms of the deal's transaction, which is expected to close later this year, were not disclosed.

The combined company will be able to provide traditional banking services, as well as LevelField's digital asset management. Burling Bank's senior management team will join LevelField's leadership, per a press release. They will focus on serving the bank's existing clients and growing the banking business nationwide.

"We conducted a broad review of banks in the U.S. to find the ideal institution with both an existing business and a management team who are aligned with our vision; we exceeded our expectations with Burling Bank. With this acquisition, LevelField will become a traditional bank, albeit one serving customers interested in the digital asset class," says Gene A. Grant II, CEO of LevelField Financial, in the release.

"We are thrilled to have the Burling executives join our leadership team, and together we intend to deliver fantastic customer service and well-designed products to customers who have an interest in accessing the digital asset class through a traditional bank," he continues.

Founded in 2018 by former banking executives, LevelField's leadership believes "the future of money is digital and that banks will continue to be a trusted provider of financial services," according to the website. This acquisition comes ahead of the company's plans to expand nationally.

"LevelField's strategic approach presented a tremendous opportunity for the bank to expand beyond our local footprint and serve customers with shared interests across the nation," says Michael J. Busch, Burling Bank president and CEO. "Together, we will continue to provide superior service and demonstrate that we truly understand the expanding and unique needs of our customers. Additionally, through the carefully developed suite of products we can address our customers' interests in digital assets and introduce them to LevelField's safe, simple, and secure platform."