Houston named a top city for women in STEM fields

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Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are well represented in Houston, according to a recent report. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

If you're a woman in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and you call Houston home, according to a new report, you're doing it right.

In honor of Women's History Month, CommercialCafe updated its 2020 ranking of the top U.S. cities for women working in STEM. According to the report, Houston ranks at No. 5 on the list of the best southern cities in the United States for women in STEM. The Bayou City also claims the No. 19 spot nationally.

Here are some other key findings about Houston on the report:

  • STEM jobs in Houston account for 7 percent of all jobs, and a little less than a third of these positions are held by women.
  • About 23,964 women work in STEM in Houston — which is the most out of any other city in the South.
  • Houston gained 4,318 new women STEM employees since 2015, the third-highest number in this regional ranking.
  • The median annual income for women in STEM here is $68,172.
Texas makes up about half of the top 10 Southern states — Austin places in second, while Frisco (No. 7), Dallas (No. 8) and Plano (No. 10) fall behind Houston. Nationally, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle take the top three spots, respectively.

Women working in STEM - South 2021 - Infogram infogram.com

Houston has been recognized for its STEM fields before, and last fall, SmartAsset ranked Houston as No. 7 in STEM nationally based on workforce size. And, in 2019, Houston placed sixth for STEM workforce diversity. Last year Houston also ranked No. 6 for women in tech, also according to SmartAsset.

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.

Houston isn't very attractive of an ecosystem for STEM professionals, according to a new report. Getty Images

​​Report finds Houston has room to grow as an attractive city for STEM professionals​​

Needs improvement

Houston has been heralded as a great place to find a job in many instances, so it may come as some surprise that when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the Bayou City isn't primed for professionals.

The city ranked No. 33 out of the 100 largest metros in the United States in a study conducted by WalletHub. The 17 metrics corresponded to professional opportunities, STEM friendliness, or quality of life. Within those categories, Houston ranked No. 47, No. 20, and No. 54, respectively.

Some of the areas where the Houston area stood out is wage, engineering educational opportunities, and projected demand for STEM jobs in 2020. Houston had the highest annual median wage for STEM workers, which was adjusted for cost of living.

While Houston seems to be predicted to need STEM professionals, the city currently has among the worst STEM employment growth and among the highest unemployment rate for STEM professionals with a Bachelor's degree or higher.

Austin, which ranked at No. 4, was the only Texas city to rank higher than Houston, and Dallas followed close behind Houston at No. 38. Dallas actually performed similar to Houston across the categories, while Austin's scores reflected that the city provided the 8th best STEM professional opportunities in the country.

Rounding out the top five on the list was Seattle at No. 1, Boston at No. 2, Pittsburgh at No. 3, and San Francisco at No.5.

In November, Accenture's Brian Richards wrote a guest column for InnovationMap on how Houston could advance as a premier city for tech and innovation. He proffered that STEM talent is a key component the city needs — both coming into the ecosystem as well as remaining here.

"Houston already has tremendous amounts of STEM talent but doesn't produce enough talent or retain enough of the locally-grown talent," he writes. "To jumpstart, we are going to have to import it initially."

Apparently, this isn't an issue unique to Houston. According to Martin Storksdieck, director for the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning in Oregon, while the U.S. has been successfully attracting outsiders to STEM higher education roles, there's a growing need for specific STEM jobs like nurses and computer scientists.

"The US is neither creating, attracting nor retaining middle-skilled STEM professionals in any competitive fashion," Storksdieck says in the report. "[Meanwhile], about half of academic STEM graduate students in the US are foreign born."

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.

Jim Allison's groundbreaking work with T cells helped him net the award. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Houston scientist wins Nobel Prize for breakthrough cancer treatment

Research Recognition

A University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center scientist has been lauded for his cancer research. Jim Allison, Ph.D., was announced as the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 1.

Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform, is the first MD Anderson scientist to receive the world's most coveted award for discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine. Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor, according to a release.

"I'm honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition," Allison says in a statement. "A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells to travel our bodies and work to protect us."

Allison shares the award with Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan. When announcing the honor, the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted in a statement that "stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year's Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy."

The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer. According to MD Anderson, Allison's crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake on their activation, freeing the T cells to attack cancer. He developed an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4 and demonstrated the success of the approach in experimental models.

Allison's work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug which would become the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years, with many living for 10 years and beyond, unprecedented results, according to the cancer center.

"Jim Allison's accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated," says MD Anderson president Peter WT Pisters, M.D., in a statement. "His research has led to life-saving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope. The significance of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment will be felt for generations to come."

"I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has," Allison adds. "It's a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who've been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade. They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.