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.

This week's innovators to know are all tech entrepreneurs with big ideas. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

From the science of love to confusing cryptocurrency, this week's Houston innovators to know are dabbling in some interesting industries to say the least.

Corey Allen, founder of Ecotone and treasurer of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber

Corey Allen had entrepreneurialism in his blood — but it wasn't until he got involved with the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber that he got the courage to break out on his own. Courtesy of Corey Allen

This week's Pride Month feature is Corey Allen, who has an amazing storing into entrepreneurialism. He found confidence and encouragement from joining the LGBT chamber and started his own business. Now, he helps lead the organization as treasurer. Click here to read his Q&A with InnovationMap.

Brittany Barreto, CEO and co-founder of WeHaveChemistry

Brittany Barreto has expanded her DNA dating technology to a compatibility company named We Have Chemistry. Courtesy of WeHaveChemistry

As Brittany Barreto was working to use science to find singles love, she fielded many requests from couples who wanted in on the DNA compatibility tool she created. The requests kept coming in and now, Barreto has pivoted her dating app, Pheramor, to a new compatibility concept called WeHaveChemistry. Click here to read the full story.

Spencer Randall, principal and co-founder of CryptoEQ

Cryptocurrency doesn't have to be a big, confusing risk with this Houston startup's technology. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

Spencer Randall, through his new company CryptoEQ, wants to simplify ratings and analysis in cryptocurrency, which historically has been confusing and approachable to most. With the company's beta now live, Randall hopes that those not familiar with cryptocurrency will be able to use the platform as a learning tool. The platform takes information on trending cryptocurrency and boils it down into three columns — rating, technical analysis and trend analysis — in order for users to know when to buy or sell. Read the full story here.

Brittany Barreto has expanded her DNA dating technology to a compatibility company named We Have Chemistry. Courtesy of WeHaveChemistry

Houston entrepreneur pivots from DNA dating to a compatibility program for couples

The science of love

As Brittany Barreto was developing and promoting her DNA-based dating app, Pheramor, that can establish compatibility in prospective couples using a certain string of genetics, she made some couples very jealous. While not single, they wanted to know the compatibility they have with their partner.

"For every single we connected with through Pheramor, there were at least three couples that wanted to complete the DNA swab to find out their compatibility," she says in a news release.

Now, Barreto and her team, which now includes acclaimed relationship expert Laura Berman, have developed WeHaveChemistry, a series of tests and DNA analysis that can give couples a look at their compatibility. And, WeHaveChemistry has taken it a step further to include more than just DNA in the report.

"The team is very excited about WeHaveChemistry," says Barreto in the release. "We've done our research and carefully crafted two reports: the socioemotional analysis and the DNA report. All couples will receive both reports to analyze their physical and emotional chemistry—which we refer to as their 'Love Alchemy."

The results aren't categorized as good or bad, and there's no score determined for couples — the findings are meant to be used to enhance the relationship and as a guide for navigating the trials and tribulations that often come with monogamy.

"The most important way for couples to ensure that their relationship stays strong is to both play to their strengths and to be honest and curious about their areas for growth," says Berman in the release. "We all have areas where we need to stretch a little, both as partners and as people, and couples can apply the findings of the SEA to their relationships and begin growing right away. In addition, the SEA identifies where we are strongest, what we should celebrate and honor, and the areas which we can rely on as a firm foundation when times get tough."

The process goes as follows:

  • Couples complete the DNA kit.
  • Each person takes the socioemotional analysis quiz, which analyzes emotional intimacy, physical connection, purpose, and future vision. The quiz will identify the person's strengths.
  • Each person receive their DNA report, which assesses sexual chemistry based on genetics.
  • The two aspects — the DNA report and the quiz results — are combined to predict and guide chemistry.

The way genetics affects attraction is completely subconscious and instinctual, dating back to primitive times.

"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 in a previous InnovationMap article. "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."

Of course, nowadays, there are many more factors that go into compatibility and both Pheramor and WeHaveChemistry have included that in their assessments.

Swabbing for love

Courtesy of WeHaveChemistry

The DNA kit has swabs and information for two people and is sent through the mail.




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Houston again recognized as a top major city of the future

Bragging rights

Houston, the future looks bright.

A new study from the fDi Intelligence division of the Financial Times places Houston at No. 7 among the top major cities of the future for 2021-22 across North, South, and Central America. Among major cities in the Americas, Houston appears at No. 3 for business friendliness and No. 4 for connectivity.

"Houston is known as one of the youngest, fastest-growing, and most diverse cities anywhere in the world. I am thrilled that we continue to be recognized for our thriving innovation ecosystem," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is quoted as saying in the fDi study.

Toronto leads the 2021-22 list of the top major cities in the Americas, followed by San Francisco, Montreal, Chicago, and Boston.

The rankings are based on data in five categories:

  • Economic potential
  • Business friendliness
  • Human capital and lifestyle
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Connectivity

Houston's no stranger to the list. Last year, the city ranked No. 3 on the same study, and in 2019, claimed the No. 5 spot.

"The fact that Houston consistently ranks among the top markets for foreign direct investment speaks to our region's connectivity and business-friendly environment," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer at the Greater Houston Partnership. "Many of the industry sectors we target for expansion and relocation in Houston are global in nature — from energy 2.0 and life sciences to aerospace and digital tech. The infrastructure and diverse workforce that make these prime growth sectors for us among domestic players are equally attractive to international companies looking to establish or strengthen ties in the Americas."

International trade is a cornerstone of the Houston area's economy. In 2020, the region recorded $129.5 billion in exports, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. China ranked as the region's top trading partner last year, followed by Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

Houston's role as a hub for foreign trade and international business "is likely to support the region's economic recovery in the months and years ahead," the partnership noted in May.

"We talk often of Houston as a great global city — one that competes with the likes of London, Tokyo, São Paulo, and Beijing. But that's only possible because of our infrastructure — namely our port — and our connections around the world," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the partnership, said last month. "Houston's ties abroad remain strong."

Houston shopping center opts for buzzy new environmental project

bee's knees

Bees are glorious creatures, tasked with pollination and the no-big-deal duty of balancing our planet's ecosystem and keeping the circle of life moving. Oh, and the honey!

No surprise, then, that beekeeping is all the buzz. With that in mind, a local outlet center is launching its own honeybee colony on its rooftop. Tanger Outlets Houston is taking off with a new pollinator project, and the public is welcome to join and learn about these precious winged buddies. The project is a partnership with Alvéole, a social beekeeping company.

Expect educational bee workshops for retailers and shoppers, meant to reinforce the benefits of urban beekeeping. Resident beekeeper Evan Donoho Gregory will offer a hands-on, interactive experience designed to get shoppers sweet on honeybees and more connected to their environment, per a press release.

Gregory will also make regular visits to the center to maintain and care for the colonies; enthusiasts can follow along on social media.

A little about the hive: it's set up to allow the bees to pollinate the area's flora and thrive within a three-mile radius. At the height of the season, per press materials, each hive will contain up to 50,000 honeybees. That swarm will include some 90 percent worker bees (females) and 10 percent drones (males). Natch, each hive contains one queen bee. (There can be only one!)

With hope, the industrious honeybees will produce the equivalent of 100 jars of hyperlocal, artisanal honey per urban apiary. Tanger Outlets Houston plans to harvest the honey to share with its neighbors, per a release.

"Sharing the city with our winged neighbors is a simple, natural way to positively impact the environment," said Tanger Outlets marketing director Oliver Runco, in a statement. "We're eager to share the buzzworthy details of upcoming workshops that will educate our shoppers, brands and community on the critical role honeybees play in our ecosystem."

Bee fans can watch the progress, check out photos, videos, and upcoming beekeeper visit dates at MyHive Tanger Outlets Houston. For information on upcoming workshops, visit tangeroutlet.com/Houston and follow along on Facebook and Instagram.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.