Brittany Barreto founded the first nationwide DNA-based dating app, and she shares her story of its unexpected, and unavoidable, downfall. Photo courtesy of Pheramor

When Brittany Baretto was 18 years old and sitting in an undergraduate genetics seminar, she raised her hand. She asked, to her professor's point, if particular DNA trait differences between two people can result in attraction, could she, based on that logic, make a DNA-based dating tool. With that question, she set in motion a series of events.

These events included teaming up with Bin Huang to start a dating app, called Pheramor, that factored in user DNA; raising millions for the company; hiring a team from across the country; and signing up users in all 50 states. Though, Pheramor's hockey stick growth came to a sudden stop this year when Apple pulled the app from its store, and there was nothing the founders or their investors could do about it.

"They are gatekeepers in innovation," Barreto learned the hard way.

InnovationMap recently spoke with Barreto to discuss the rise and fall of Pheramor and lessons learned.

Launching the first nationwide DNA-based dating app

Barreto mulled over the idea for the company through college and through her genetics PhD program before starting the company in 2017.

"I actually formed the C-Corp the same month that Accenture put out its report on Houston needing more attention on its startups and innovation," she says. "I didn't know about that report. I was really lucky with Pheramor to ride the wave of Houston growing its startup community."

She went on to fundraise $1.3 million, and, at its height, Pheramor had 10 employees working out of WeWork in the Galleria. Pheramor was the first nationwide DNA-based dating app, and for that she will always be proud, Barreto says.

"We were growing something not necessarily unicorn status growth, but we were doing something really different," she says. "And we knew we were growing something valuable. At our peak, we had 250 downloads a day."

Venture capitalists were taking note, Barreto says, and she was on her way to closing another round — this time for $2.2 million.

Getting the call

In March, Barreto and Huang attended Enventure's bioventure pitch event, where, just three years prior, the duo had pitched and won thousands of dollars. It was a real turning point, Barreto remembers.

Earlier that day, they had seen some issues with Apple's app store and filed a service request. As she left the event, Barreto's phone rang, and it was an Apple representative explaining that the Pheramor app had been pulled from the store. New rules for the App Store had been set in place — rules that forbid dating apps from procuring DNA samples from users.

Once the DNA element was removed from the app, Pheramor would be allowed back on, Barreto was told.

"That was our differentiator," she says. "That was the thing that made us Pheramor."

For the next three weeks, Barreto called every app reviewer at Apple and challenged each "no" she got.

"I had that internal founder drive. I was like, 'No, I just need to talk to someone. I'm going to hustle around this.'"

Her request went to the very top, before receiving one final, inarguable "No."

Barreto knows why Apple instituted the new policy — biohackers are the newest cyber threat in the world. But she was being dragged through the ringer while watching her startup slowly slip away, and the anonymous Apple employees on the other end of the phone had no sympathy for her inner turmoil.

"It felt like they just kept reading a script," she says, adding that it was the most painful experience for her. "The insensitivity of the app review people was salt in the wound."

Throwing a Hail Mary

The Pheramor app was still live on Google, Barreto says, but with only 10 percent of the market, and data showing that Android users are historically non-buyers, she knew she had to pivot.

Huang and his team turned around an idea for a couples' compatibility test based on DNA, and WeHaveChemistry.com was born. Barreto tapped an acclaimed relationship expert, Laura Berman, as a strategic adviser. She made a deal with her board — if they could sell 100 of these kits in 60 days, they'll make new goals and keep the testing live.

Barreto says they sold some, but ultimately in June, after not meeting that goal, she suggested to the board the company should sell its assets, if possible, to help pay back her investors.

While the investors of Pheramor's $2.2 million round had pulled out at this point, Pheramor still had $100,000 in the bank. Barreto says she budgeted about $30,000 to legally close the company. At this point, she had laid off her staff, and it was down to the co-founders. Both got new jobs — Huang is now the head data scientist at Houston-based BrainCheck, and Barreto joined Capital Factory as its Houston-based venture associate.

Since Barreto was actively trying to sell the assets, she kept quiet about Pheramor's downfall. While she had some interest, ultimately, people told her the technology was too complicated or that they wouldn't buy unless Barreto came with the company.

"I realized that over the past two years, I had already been ad hoc coaching and mentoring founders and loving it," Barreto says. "Now, I was doing it and getting paid for it, on a bigger scale, and with more resources. I knew it was the journey I wanted to continue down."

Lessons thoroughly learned

Barreto's past six months have been a rollercoaster, to say the least. Losing Pheramor felt like an identity crisis for her.

"I was very personally involved with the brand," she says. "So when Pheramor was gone, it was like, 'Who am I?'"

She had to keep most of her inner turmoil hidden from the startup community, especially since she was trying to sell Pheramor's assets. She battled an eating disorder and lost chunks of her hair, all the while she felt like she had to keep a smile on her face.

"As a female founder, I felt so much pressure to win. It felt like stakes were higher for me," Barreto says. "I felt really nervous to let my insides show."

She did find a few entrepreneurs that helped to guide her with their own perspective and careers, and Barreto says she leaned on her lawyer, Nicole Moss, a Houston-area startup lawyer, to help talk her through things. One surprising confidant was one of her investors, Jack Gill.

Barreto remembers meeting with Gill and thinking she was about to have to apologize for losing a ton of his money, but instead, he hugged her and congratulated on her first failure — that Pheramor's demise made her a real entrepreneur.

"His pride was a big turning point for me. I realized, 'Wow, this is really a jumping off point,'" she says.

This, of course, was directly contrasted by other investor's extreme disappointment. In the end, Barreto paid back investors by about 5 percent. She also realized the difference of working with investors who are new to the process.

"I learned a lesson of taking money from people who are not experienced investors will cause you headaches along the way," she says.

What's next? Funding femtech.

These investor lessons learned are especially important to Barreto, who wants her next startup to be a venture fund focused on empowering the marginalized entrepreneurs — female founders, the LGBT community, minorities, etc.

"I want to be someone of influence for social good," she says. "This crazy idea I had for a dating app was just a way to propel me to becoming that person. I felt like it did that."

Flipping to the other side of the investor table is appealing to Barreto, because she feels like she's able to make more of an impact.

"What I learned from Pheramor is I put all my eggs in one basket, and something happened and all my eggs broke," she says. "As a VC, you put your eggs in lots of baskets. If I want to make big change, I can probably do that more effectively if I'm empowering 20 different companies instead of doing only one thing."

Her idea is to raise a femtech fund that invests in startups and entrepreneurs with products or services within women's health.

"For me, as long as you're working on a technology that improves women's health and wellness, I want to invest in you," she says.

It's taken her a long time to get to this point, but ultimately, Barreto has realized that she did everything she could do, and she's better for this journey — no matter how rough it is. More importantly to Barreto, she sees this as an opportunity to share her story of failure — though, she wishes there were a better word for it — so that other entrepreneurs don't feel so alone in the process. She hopes that Pheramor's legacy can fill that need.

"We need to get comfortable with failure and support each other in the journey," she says.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Nearly half of Houston workers complain of serious burnout, says new report

working hard

Local workers who're especially dreading that commute or cracking open the laptop in the morning aren't alone. A new study reveals that nearly half of Houston laborers are more burned out on the job.

Some 49 percent of Bayou City residents report to be burned out at work, according to employment industry website Robert Half. That's significantly higher than last year, when only 37 percent reported burnout in a similar poll.

Meanwhile, more than one in four Houston workers (28 percent) say that they will not unplug from work when taking time off this summer.

Not surprisingly, American workers are ready for a vacation. Per a press release, the research also reveals:

  • One in four workers lost or gave up paid time off in 2020
  • One in three plans to take more than three weeks of vacation time this year

Elsewhere in Texas, the burnout is real. In Dallas, 50 percent of workers report serious burnout. More than a quarter — 26 percent — of Dallasites fear they won't disconnect from the office during summer vacation.

In fun-filled Austin, 45 percent of the workforce complain of burnout. Some 32 percent of Austinites feel they can unplug from work during the summer.

Fortunately for us, the most burned-out city in the U.S. isn't in the Lone Star State. That dubious title goes to the poor city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where 55 percent of laborers are truly worn out.

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston small biz tech platform raises $21M series B

money moves

A tech company focused on supporting and growing startups and small businesses has reached its own next big growth milestone this week.

Machine learning-enabled small business support company Hello Alice, founded in Houston with a large presence in California, has closed its $21 million series B raise led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest.

The raise comes at a pivotal time for the company, which worked hard during the pandemic to support struggling business and now aims to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds as the world re-emerges out of the COVID-19 era. The fresh funds, according to a press release, will be used to refine the predictive capabilities on its platform, launch a mobile application, and more.

"These investments signal that despite the recent challenges small business owners have faced, there is an economic tidal wave that will revitalize Main Street, led by the entrepreneurs we serve," says Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, in the release.

Since April 2020, Hello Alice has granted over $20 million in emergency funds and resources for small business owners affected by the pandemic. According to the release, the largest percentage of those grants went to "New Majority owners," especially people of color and women. Additionally, the company has reportedly experienced 1,100 percent growth and has expanded to support 500,000 small business owners weekly, with an increased revenue of more than 600 percent through its SaaS platform.

"We are thrilled to have a cap table as diverse as the business owners we serve," says Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, in the release. "Our investors are leaders from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and US Veteran communities. As a Latina founder and fellow small business owner, I want to ensure that as our company grows, we are fueling future diversity in capital and breaking through ceilings for the benefit of our community."

According to a recent report Hello Alice produced in partnership with GGV Capital, now is the time to support small businesses. The report found that 83 percent of owners surveyed (which included 97,739 founders operating in all 50 states) believe their business will perform better in 2021 than in 2020. Most of the founders — 93 percent — plan to hire this year compared to the almost half — 45 percent — that laid off employees in 2020. Additionally, founders have an increased focus on tech — 75 percent said they are going to spend more on tech this year compared to last.

"Small business owners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, but many fail before they've had an opportunity to meaningfully serve the community in which they're based," says Frank Rotman, QED Investors Founding Partner, in the release. "Access to both capital and business expertise remain the biggest obstacles for SMBs, challenges heightened for women- and minority-owned businesses.

"Traditionally, corporations and government grants want to engage and support, but there hasn't been a source of truth on who can qualify for their diversity grants, funds and programs," he continues. "Hello Alice solves this problem, building tools that empower the new majority and enabling corporations and governments to support SMBs. Founders Carolyn and Elizabeth and the entire Hello Alice team are having a real, tangible impact on the ecosystem. We are incredibly excited to help them help others."

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, manufacturing, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar is transitioning her role at Greentown Houston. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has a new role within Greentown Labs. She's lead the local team as launch director, and now is taking a new role now that Greentown Houston has opened its doors. Garaizar recently discussed with InnovationMap why now is the perfect time for Greentown to premiere in Houston.

"I think that if Greentown had happened one year before or even one year later, it wouldn't be the right time. I really believe that our main partners are transitioning themselves — Shell, Chevron, and many others are announcing how they are transitioning," she says. "And now they look at Greentown as an execution partner more than anything. Before, it was a nice initiative for them to get involved in. Now, they are really thinking about us much more strategically." Click here to read more.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

Misha Govshteyn joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the evolving electronics manufacturing industry. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

Electronics manufacturer and MacroFab, run by CEO Misha Govshteyn, much like the rest of the business world, was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. But as some business returned last summer, Govshteyn says MacroFab bounced back in a big way.

"In a lot of ways, the concepts we've been talking about actually crystalized during the pandemic. For a lot of people, it was theoretically that supply chain resiliency is important," Govshteyn says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Single sourcing from a country halfway around the world might not be the best solution. ... When you have all your eggs in one basket, sooner or later you're going to have a break in your supply chain. And we've seen nothing but breaks in supply chains for the last five years." Click here to read more.

Kerri Smith, interim executive director of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator

A new clean energy accelerator has announced its first cohort. Photo via rice.edu

The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, a 12-week program that will prepare startups to grow their business, connect them with strategic partners and mentors, launch pilots, and fundraise, has named its inaugural cohort.

"We were impressed with the quality, potential and range of clean energy solutions being commercialized by our applicant pool and took great care in assessing their potential as well as our ability to meet their identified needs," says Kerri Smith, the accelerator's interim executive director. "The selection process was very competitive. We had a difficult time paring down the applications but are looking forward to working with our first class of 12." Click here to read more.