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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The HTX TechList has launched — here's why you should get involved

Logging on

Houston Exponential has hit launch on the HTX TechList, and now startups, investors, entrepreneurial hubs, and corporations can officially opt into the data-focused and networking-enabled platform.

The HTX TechList went live yesterday, August 13, at a virtual event hosted by HX. (Note: InnovationMap was the media partner for the event.) The platform acts as a one-stop shop for Houston's innovation ecosystem. Mayor Sylvester Turner joined the stream to explain the role the platform will play in connecting the various players within the industry.

"The HTX TechList is our city's leading resource for in-depth information about Houston startups, investors, hubs, and corporations," Mayor Turner said at the event. "Within the Houston region, the HTX TechList will build the connections and density that were never before possible in such a huge spread-out city."

Another benefit to the new platform, as HX Chief of Staff Serafina Lalany says, is the data it is going to be able to provide about the ecosystem.

"We needed a centralized datasource classifying startups, investors, startup development organizations, and corporate innovators," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was not any good resource on the internet that was verified, centralized, and adhered to a data standard."

The platform, which has derived from an initiative from Startup Nation Central in Israel, has already proven its usefulness abroad and has over 70,000 monthly users. In a panel at the event, Eran Levy of Enel Innovation Hub Israel described how the tool has benefitted him and his work in scouting startups.

"The ability to have a tool to map, in our case, 8,000 startups, when we look for specific categories or a specific tech area, it helps us a lot," he says. "It saves a lot of time and effort, and, more importantly, it makes it much more effective because I reach out to the right startups."

On the panel, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures and chair of Houston Exponential, echoed the opportunity for connectivity the platform will enable — but in a specific way for her organization as an investor.

"I view the TechList as the tool that's going to enable a couple of things. One is the scouts to access even more opportunities, but I think the other piece is also for co-investors in startups to be able to find us," she says, adding that while CTV has been around for a couple decades, visibility is always something they'd like to improve on.

Now that the platform is launched, anyone can join to make a profile on the site. Startups, investors, hubs, and corporations can also launch profiles that will be vetted by HX's data team.

Nonprofit pivots to telemedical treatments and therapies amid pandemic

telehealth

Naomi West has been homebound since COVID-19 became a threat in February. Sitting in front of her computer screen, much of her time is spent pursuing her graduate degree in physics from Rice University and teaching courses through Zoom. Most of her virtual meetings are the same except for one recurring appointment. Every 90 days, West logs on her computer to sit with a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast (PPGC) nurse practitioner and check-in on her gender-affirming hormone therapy.

West, a Houston transwoman, made her first appointment to receive hormone therapy in October, prior to the pandemic. As she embarked on her transition, she saw an immediate change within herself.

"There was absolutely no going back...it was a night and day difference within 24 hours," she explains.

West has been receiving treatment for ten months at Planned Parenthood. After being hospitalized for depression and drowning in hundred-hour work weeks, West was feeling hopeless. Inspired by her best friend's journey with hormone therapy at Planned Parenthood, West felt motivated to change her life.

"The difference [tran scare] makes is immeasurable to say the least," she says, "I couldn't imagine having it any other way. I couldn't imagine being without it."

Trans care is offered at two Houston-area Planned Parenthood locations—Prevention Park and Northville. Since the coronavirus, Planned Parenthood's services have gone virtual, allowing Texans outside of Houston to experience the service.

"COVID-19 has really changed the way we approach patient care," says Dr. Bhavik Kumar, medical director of Primary and Trans Care at PPGC.

The centers first rolled out virtual appointments on April 1, allowing them to safely serve 5,539 patients in four months.

"We've moved a lot of our care towards telehealth, which has allowed people to access care in a way that is safer for them and also protects our frontline workers," explains Dr. Kumar.

The healthcare provider has six centers in the Houston area, as well as two in Louisiana, that are providing virtual appointments with experts as well as access to curbside birth control. Trans care first became available at Planned Parenthood in 2019, and includes gender-affirming hormone therapy for patients over 18.

"We went into providing trans care knowing that a lot of folks have bad experiences accessing healthcare and perhaps bad experiences with providers," says Dr. Kumar. "There's a lot of fear and anxiety in accessing care for trans communities, whether it's being misgendered, having their dead name used, or having a number of different things that can lead to traumatic experiences," he explains.

To a transgender person, access to health isn't just a hot button political issue but a lifeline. Like West, many transgender Americans struggle with depression and feelings of hopelessness.

In a 2019 survey from The Trevor Project, 29 percent of trans and non-binary youth reported that they'd attempted suicide while 54 percent considered it. The striking statistics are a glimpse into the struggles trans and nonbinary people face daily as they experience discrimination, violence, and cohersion due to their gender identity.

West, like many in the trans community, shared the same fears prior to her first appointment.

"I've always come down with what I say is white coat syndrome, but within 10 minutes I realized it was all completely unfounded," she explains.

PPGC follows an informed consent treatment model, meaning patients are not required to receive an approval letter from a therapist to begin treatment. After speaking with a patient to explain the risks and benefits of hormone therapy, patients can make the decision to move forward.

"It was just a conversation," explained West, "I felt no judgement. It was just support for my decision to begin hormone therapy and suggestions for how to go about it, when to go about it—they were nothing if not accommodating.

Telehealth lends itself as a suitable substitution for in person care, according to West. Many of the appointments are spent discussing her psychological state and feelings regarding the treatment, and she goes for a blood test every 90 days. West, who has been very careful to prevent exposure to COVID-19, has felt at ease meeting virtually with her nurse practitioner.

Thanks to the ability telehealth has to connect us with people regardless of distance, transgender Texans have access to care at any distance. One of the core benefits of trans telehealth is that "folks who are further away from our health centers, perhaps in rural communities, don't have to make the several hour drive to the health center and then back," says Dr. Kumar.

The convenience has allowed PPGC to accommodate 240 gender-affirming hormone therapy appointments and serve 176 transgender patients.

More than cut travel time, the emergence of telemedicine also welcomes comfort. "They get to be in the safety and the comfort of their home or wherever they do feel safe," explains Dr. Kumar, "They can have other folks around them if they want, whether it's family or friends."

"We are constantly analyzing the way we provide care, but even more so in a different way during the pandemic," shares Dr. Kumar. Telehealth services include birth control consultation, emergency contraception, long-acting birth control implant consultations, PrEP follow-ups, primary care, STI treatment, and other healful visits to address problems like pelvic pain or bleeding.

Of the many services that are now remote, Depo birth control shots and oral contraceptives, are available curbside.

"Patients don't have to get out of the car; they don't have to worry about touching the door handle or anything else they have anxiety around," explains Dr. Kumar, "They're able to access the care they need without having to deal with potential exposure."

Will telehealth at PPGC become a permanent staple? Only time will tell, but Dr. Kumar has found that patients have found the service to be helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We always strive to provide as many options for our patients so that they can get the healthcare that's best for them," shares Dr. Kumar.