Rebecca Vaught started her biotech company just ahead of COVID-19, but she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast that it's meant more opportunities than challenges. Photo courtesy of Van Heron Labs

While startups everywhere are struggling to adapt in the tumultuous times of COVID-19, Rebecca Vaught and her company, having launched just ahead of the pandemic, don't actually know any other way of existing.

After watching some of her friends thrive in Houston's life science ecosystem, she knew Houston was the place she wanted to start the company that she'd been envisioning and plotting for years. She took a chance on the city, moved in, and began Enventure's Biodesign accelerator. The program shutdown as COVID-19 spread, much like other programs, but Vaught wasn't going to let that stop her momentum.

"A lot of people probably would have seen that as the stopping point but that was actually the beginning of the company," Vaught says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What it allowed us to do was actually establish the lab and do the hard work."

As Vaught says, the biotech company, Van Heron Labs, is what it is thanks to the pandemic — not just in spite of it.

"While it's been challenging, the pandemic — in a lot of ways — is the only thing we've ever known and it's a lot of reason why the company has taken off and been successful," Vaught says on the show.

She runs the company with co-founder Alec Santiago and a team of 17 interns — all located across the country. Vaught herself is currently residing in Huntsville, Alabama, after struggling to find lab space in Houston. However, the relocation has been a blessing in disguise.

"Both ecosystems are extremely unique and both bring something different to the table," she says. "My next mission, through my lived experience, is igniting or uniting the Houston and Huntsville biotech ecosystems."

On the episode, Vaught explains how the two cities — each representing key parts of space exploration history and burgeoning tech scene — complement each other. She also shares her plans for growth and the need to bring microbiology into the future.

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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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4 program deadlines Houston innovators should know about

short stories

Editor's note: It's safe to say 2023 has fully kicked off as Houston's startup and innovation ecosystem has switched into second gear. A handful of programs — local and national — have opened applications for accelerators and pitch competitions. Scroll through to find one that applies to your company or a startup you know of. Take careful note of the deadlines since they'll be here before you know it.

Is something missing? Email natalie@innovationmap.com for editorial consideration.

Carbon to Value Initiative

Greentown Labs announced its looking for innovative companies with carbon-related technology. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Greentown Labs announced that its Carbon to Value (C2V) Initiative has opened applications for its third set of startups.

"Supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the C2V Initiative is a unique partnership among the Urban Future Lab at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Greentown Labs, and Fraunhofer USA that’s driving the creation of a thriving innovation ecosystem for the commercialization of carbontech—technologies that capture and convert CO₂ into valuable end products or services," reads the news release. "Since the C2V Initiative's inception in 2020, the program has supported 18 groundbreaking carbontech startups—chosen from an exceptional pool of more than 230 applications."

The program is looking for companies with technologies within carbon capture, management, removal, or conversion and between TRL 4 and TRL 7. Selected companies will receive a $10,000 stipend and participate in the six-month program.

Applications are due by the end of the day on March 31. For more information and to apply, click here.

MassChallenge accelerators

MassChallenge has two accelerators open for applications. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge has two programs with open applications:

MassChallenge US Early Stage Accelerator (Deadline: March 3)

This three-month program is industry agnostic and provides intensive support, guidance, tools, and connectivity to the greater MassChallenge community. Around 200 startups are selected per cohort that range in stage from those currently engaged in customer discovery work to validating a technology or service. For more information and to apply, click here.

MassChallenge HealthTech Accelerator (Deadline: February 6)

The 2023 HealthTech Sprint is an eight-week program intended to work intensely with 20 to 25 startups to accelerate the tools and technologies that could transform healthcare. The HealthTech Sprint program is designed to support mid-stage companies that possess a product/solution ready for scaling. For more information and to apply, click here.

Houston Energy Transition Initiative's Energy Ventures Pitch Competition 

HETI is bringing back its CERAWeek pitch competition. Image via houston.org

The Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative, or HETI, is looking for participants for its Energy Ventures Pitch Competition at CERAWeek this year.

"This pitch competition brings together key members of the energy industry, investors, and startups to showcase the critical innovations and emerging technologies that create value from the world’s transition to low-carbon energy systems," reads the website.

HETI is looking for companies addressing challenges and opportunities in CCUS, hydrogen, energy storage, and the circular economy, are invited to present their well-developed business concepts to a world-class investor community.

Applications close February 9. For more information and to apply, click here.

Rice Business Plan Competition

The annual Rice Business Plan Competition has opened applications for student startups. Photo by Natalie Harms

Calling all student-founded startups — the largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competition, the Rice Business Plan Competition, has applications open. According to Rice, 784 RBPC alumni have raised $4.6 billion in funding and created over 5,500 jobs. This year's event is going to be held May 11 to 13.

The RBPC is open to all students from any university around the world. Teams must include at least one graduate-level student, and every team that is invited to compete in person at Rice University is guaranteed to take home at least one of the more that 60 expected cash prizes. For more information and to apply, click here.

Houston tech startup acquired by Tokyo-based multinational company

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A Houston company that provides analytics solutions within the chemicals industry has exited to a Japanese company.

Yokogawa acquired Fluence Analytics Inc. in a deal announced today. The terms of the deal were not disclosed and, effective immediately, the company operate as Yokogawa Fluence Analytics. Jay Manouchehri, who joined the company in 2022, will continue to serve as CEO of the entity.

“Combining forces with Yokogawa Electric enables us to capture the full value of our unique data sets, and we can't wait to deliver this added value to our customers," Manouchehri says in a news release. "Together, we will enable autonomous operations and digital transformation in the polymer and biopharma industries."

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, Fluence Analytics moved to Houston in 2021 following a $7.5 million venture capital raise led by Yokogawa Electric Corp., which has its North American headquarters in Sugar Land.

The company's technology — automatic continuous online monitoring of polymerizations (ACOMP) product — provides real-time analytics solutions to polymer and biopharmaceutical companies worldwide. According to the company, its ACOMP product is the only commercially available system that can measure and analyze multiple polymer properties in real time, which leads to an improved system and less energy consumption and waste.

“Polymers are used in nearly every aspect of modern society in the form of plastics, rubber, paint, and so on," says Kenji Hasegawa, a Yokogawa Electric vice president and head of the Yokogawa Products Headquarters, in the release. "Combining Fluence Analytics' ACOMP system and other technology with our industry know-how will enable us to work with our customers to digitalize and automate polymerization processes that are currently monitored and adjusted manually.

"This will assist customers to improve worker safety, profitability, and environmental performance. We also plan to apply this technology to polymer re-use. We believe this is truly a game-changer for the industry,” he continues.

Fluence Analytics offices in Stafford, just southwest of Houston and has a team of 25 employees. Last fall, Fluence Analytics won in the Hardtech Category of the Houston Innovation Awards.