If dating someone who’s not an asshole just doesn’t seem like it’s in your destiny, maybe you’d have better luck with DNA.
That’s what the founders behind Pheramor are banking on, at least.
The Houston-based tech startup hopes to revolutionize online dating by combining users’ genetic profiles and data from their online activity into a matchmaking platform that will launch early next year. To put it in simple app terms, think of the user interface of Tinder combined with the science and data behind 23andMe or Ancestry.com
The way the genetic dating part works is like this: People who sign up for the app will pay to submit a sample of their cheek-swabbed DNA to Pheramor for lab sequencing. Then part of their dating profile will be built around what comes back — an analysis of their human leukocyte antigen gene, which plays a key role in human immune systems and odor preferences.
The idea, according to Pheramor co-founder Asma Mirza, is that if people choose who they go out with based on the compatibility of the “pheromone profile” that their genes reveal, it’s less likely they’ll end up dating a complete dick that ruins their life for a couple months.
“Maybe you won’t find your soul mate, but you’ll go on a better first date,” Mirza said.
To some, the whole thing might sound like a dystopian dating future, where genetically fused lovers stroll arm-in-arm to file police reports for their biological data that just got hacked. At the very least, it’s hard to argue that a cheek swab is a cute story to tell about how you met your partner.
“In the beginning, we considered letting people spit into a tube but decided against it,” she said.
But hundreds of people who waited in line to swab their cheeks at the Day For Night music and arts festival last week didn’t seem to have too many reservations. Pheramor, a Day For Night sponsor, had a booth set up there and Mirza said more than a thousand people signed up.
A volunteer helping to swab cheeks and take profile headshots at the Pheramor booth said he had already signed up for the service and was ready for the app’s February soft launch in Houston.
“The owner is one of my best friends, I’d trust her with my life,” he said.
Still, Mirza acknowledged that sometimes people who hear about Pheramor bring up concerns about eugenics and ask her about data privacy and security.
“It’s a new thing,” she said. “There’s nobody out there that does any sort of dating with genetics; it can seem very ‘Gattaca’ and people have questions.”
But she said that if anyone with concerns actually takes a look at the science, security and the talent behind the app, they’ll see that Pheramor is legit. For starters, Mirza pointed to her master’s degree in global health and human rights from Duke University, and co-founder Brittany Barreto’s doctorate in molecular and human genetics from Baylor School of Medicine. Bin Huang, Pheramor’s chief technology officer, has a PhD from Rice in computational biology.
“We’re a female founded, minority led company,” she said. “All three of us are scientists; it’s not something you see that much in the tech world. At the beginning of this year this was just an idea. Now we’re launching in a few months.”
The three met last December at a science entrepreneurial accelerator event at the Texas Medical Center called Bioventures, where Barreto pitched an idea for an online dating service based on genetic matching. More than half a million dollars in venture capital funding came in about a month later, she said. That wouldn’t have happened if the team and the science couldn’t face scrutiny.
“The science that we’ve been using, it’s been validated for 40 years,” Mirza said, going on to explain how Pheramor’s use of your human leukocyte antigen gene complex isn’t like eugenics at all, but could lead to you going out with someone you actually like.
The app, which incorporates users’ social media activity and online preferences into its matchmaking process, puts people together based on how different their genes are, Mirza said, referring to research on the gene complex
“It’s not like you have a gene for preferring longer hair,” she said. “We’re subconsciously looking for someone who is genetically different from us, so we can have stronger immune systems. We are attracted to people whose genetics are different than us. The more different the genes are, the better the dating works.”
The other half of how the app works comes down to users’ social media activity. Mirza described the break down between the way Pheramor uses genetics and online data as “nature versus nurture,” with data gleaned from online activity supplying the nurture information.
“DNA isn’t everything, so we can auto populate your profile based on your social media,” she said. “Why not use that online data for something that we’re all craving — good connections.”