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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5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

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Editor's note: This week's top stories include new office space for a growing Houston health tech company, an energy software-as-a-service startup raises more money than it expected, and more trending innovation news.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's innovators to know are focused on bringing startup programming and venture capital to Houston. Courtesy photos

This past week has been full of exciting innovation news in Houston — from big fundraising round closings to a new unicorn coming out of the Bayou City.

Houston innovators to know this week include a new program director for Houston's newest startup accelerator, a venture capital fund leader, and more. Continue reading.

Houston health tech startup moves into new office amid major growth

BrainCheck has moved to a new office as it grows its team and expands its product. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Following a series A round of fundraising, a Houston digital health startup is on a bit of a hiring spree, leading to new office space the company has room to grow into.

BrainCheck, which was founded in 2015 by neuroscientist David Eagleman, is a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health so that they can more quickly diagnose and treat them for maladies like dementia.

The 19-person company headquartered in Houston — with a secondary office in Austin focused on product development — has relocated its operations from coworking space in the Texas Medical Center to an office in the Rice Village area. The move was made possible by an $8 million series A financing round that closed in October. Continue reading.

TMCx company receives investment from Houston VC, UH program recognized, and more innovation news

TMCx

A TMCx company has raised money in Houston, UH's online program named best in the nation, and more Houston innovation news. Courtesy of TMCx

Houston's innovation ecosystem has seen a busy January so far — the city has claimed a unicorn in High Radius, The Ion has named a series of new execs, and so much more.

Given this influx of news, you might've missed some other Houston innovation headlines, like UH being recognized for its online master's program, recent fundings, and Texas being named a state for female entrepreneurs. Here's a few short stories to catch you up. Continue reading.

The Ion Houston names 3 new execs to its team

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion." Continue reading.

Houston-based oil and gas software company raises $1.6 million

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Houston-based M1neral has raised $1.6 million in an oversubscribed pre-seed round. Getty Images

A Houston energy tech startup that's digitally optimizing the minerals rights buying and selling process has closed an oversubscribed pre-seed financing round to the tune of $1.6 million.

M1neral's round was co-led by Amnis Ventures and Pheasant Energy, among a few other select investors and strategic partners. The company was co-founded by Jacob Avery, Kyle Chapman, and Shawn Cutter.

"Amnis Ventures is delighted to co-lead the current round of funding in M1neral. The founders come with deep knowledge of oil and gas, coupled with proven, delivered technology implementations in the energy space," says Manuel Silva III, president of Amnis Ventures Inc., in a press release. "The M1neral platform will bring age-old upstream oil and gas processes into the technology revolution of the 21st century that we have come to expect in other sectors." Continue reading.

Houston expects to see huge population surge this decade, study says

incoming

Brace yourselves, Houston. Following a decade of eye-popping population growth, Houston is expected in this decade to once again lead the nation's metro areas for the number of new residents.

New data from commercial real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield shows Houston gained 1,284,268 residents from 2010 through 2019. In terms of the number of new residents tallied during the past decade, Houston ranked second among U.S. metro areas, the data indicates.

From 2020 through 2029, Houston is projected to tack on another 1,242,781 residents, Cushman & Wakefield says. For the second decade in a row, that would be the second highest number of new residents for any metro area, the company says. That's around the number of people who live in the Louisville, Kentucky, metro area.

For Houston, the 2020-29 forecast would represent a population growth rate of 17.2 percent, down from 21.6 percent for 2010 through 2019, Cushman & Wakefield says.

As of July 2018, the Census Bureau estimated the Houston area was home to nearly 7 million people, making it the country's fifth largest metro. If the Cushman & Wakefield projection is correct, the metro population would easily exceed 8 million by the end of 2029.

The outlook is based on data from Moody's Analytics and the U.S. Census Bureau. The company published its findings January 7. The outlook takes into account a metro area's birth and death rates, along with the number of people moving into and out of an area.

The forecast indicates Houston won't be alone among Texas metro areas in terms of rolling out the welcome mat for lots of new residents.

Dallas-Fort Worth is expected to once again lead the nation's metro areas for the number of new residents. DFW gained 1,349,378 residents from 2010 through 2019, ranking first among U.S. metro areas for the number of new residents.

From 2020 through 2029, DFW is projected to tack on another 1,393,623 residents. That would be the highest number of new residents for any metro area for the second decade in a row.

The 2020-29 forecast would represent a population growth rate of 17.9 percent, down from 20.9 percent for 2010 through 2019, Cushman & Wakefield says.

As of July 2018, an estimated 7,539,711 people lived in DFW, making it the country's fourth largest metro. Under the Cushman & Wakefield scenario, DFW's population would swell to about 9 million by the time the calendar flips to 2030.

Austin, meanwhile, is projected to retain its No. 9 ranking for headcount growth among U.S. metro areas, according to Cushman & Wakefield. The company says the Austin area added 549,141 residents from 2010 through 2019. From 2020 through 2029, another 602,811 residents are on tap. At that pace, the Austin area is on track to have roughly 2.9 million residents at the outset of the next decade.

Cushman & Wakefield envisions a 26.5 percent population growth rate for the Austin area from 2020 through 2029, down from 31.8 percent in 2010-19.

The Cushman & Wakefield report doesn't include figures for the San Antonio metro area.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston startups should take care in office design — it makes a difference

houston voices

If you want a work environment conducive to a nice flow of ideas, creativity, freethinking, and finding a work groove, then your startup design and workspace matter.

When it comes to a startup's office design, you want to create spaces with a purpose. You need to be certain what you want with your office's design. Moreover, you need to be certain what you want with every square foot. Yes, you have to be that detailed. Think about it. If you go into the design of your startup's office nonchalant, you'll have spaces without purpose. When you have spaces without purpose, they become susceptible to employees using them as they please. Suddenly, the open area near the creative space becomes the snacking spot. The open space by the window becomes "spot where everyone gathers to birdwatch." You get the picture. It becomes chaotic and confusing. That's why you have to make sure you know what purpose to ascribe every area of your startup.

Here are three features of startup design that help create a mood or ambiance.

Sound check

Some bigger companies hire an acoustics engineer to set decibel levels for every area and room in a workplace. They might set higher levels for a dining area where people are encouraged to interact and enjoy themselves. Lower levels will go to conference rooms and work areas. However, not every startup has a budget to bring in an acoustics engineer. But you can still apply the same principles to your startup design.

When you walk into a library or doctor's office, there's a tacit understanding that you should speak with a lower voice. You don't need an acoustics engineer to set the figurative and literal tone for what kind of behavior employees should exhibit in each area.

It is assumed, for example, that a dining area has more leeway for louder noise. So next to the dining area you can design a work area where one can assume being a little more amplified is allowed. You can have music playing in an area where people are encouraged to mingle and talk. Music is a great cue to signal that casual interaction is encouraged.

For quieter spaces, a tighter design for a room tucked away can send a signal to anyone to keep voices low. Also, if a room has an echo, people are naturally inclined to stay quieter. People tend to interpret spaces with echoes as spaces where they need to be quieter, since an echo carries voices.

Lighting

Exposing your office to natural light creates a positive mood that encourages interaction, collaboration, and an overall "lighter" tone for having a good time at work. Dimmer lighting can be used to create a sense of thoughtfulness and encourage workers in this area to brainstorm, lost in their thoughts.

Work in color

We all know by now that colors convey moods. Blue is pacifying (think Pacific Ocean), warmer colors like red and yellow encourage a more gregarious nature. Knowing what color to design each area of your startup workspace will go far in presenting the mood you wish to create.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.