The first question out of Asma Mirza’s mouth when she makes a new acquaintance these days is, “Are you single?” If she gets a yes, the 27-year-old CEO quickly follows up with a request to swab the inside of her new friend’s cheek, in hopes it will help them find true love.
Often, people look at her like she’s crazy. They’ll ask, “What does my DNA have to do with love?”
According to an ever-growing body of scientific research, the answer is: quite a bit. That’s why Mirza and 26-year-old geneticist Brittany Barreto have spent the last year huddled in their downtown Houston office, working steadily to launch the nation’s first genetics-based dating app, Pheramor.
Their phone-based app, which they plan to officially roll out in February, combines genetic information with data gleaned from social media posts to create user profiles.
“Scientists can actually predict who’s attracted to whom,” Barreto explained. “It has to do with your pheromones.”
And the genes that control those ever-important pheromones can be analyzed through a simple cheek swab.
Barreto first learned this as a sophomore in college, during a genetics class at Drew University in New Jersey. And for her, the world stopped spinning for a moment as an idea was implanted in her mind. She raised her hand and asked, “Could I make a GeneHarmony.com?”
She wasn’t met with as much enthusiasm as she felt herself.
“The professor was like, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ Like, ‘You could. That’s a thing,'” she said. “And everyone kind of looked at me and was like, ‘That’s so Brittany. She’s just strange.'”
She tuned out the eye rolls, and tucked away the idea for safe-keeping.
“Over the past seven or eight years, I’ve just told friends or boyfriends, and my mom. And everyone has always been like, ‘You should do it.’ But it was always, like, fear and timing, and not knowing how,” she said.
“Brittany went up, and she pitched this. And I think we were like, the only women at the accelerator,” Mirza said. “And so, she looked at me, and she was like, ‘I want you on my team.’ And I looked at her, like ‘I want to be on your team.’ And that’s how we met. Brittany brought in the genetics, and I have a background in expansion and capacity building – taking a project and scaling it.”
Also at the accelerator was Bin Huang, a doctoral candidate at Rice University, studying computational biology. Mirza and Baretto brought him on as Pheramor’s third co-founder, putting him in charge of developing an algorithm for their idea.
Mirza and Barreto are optimistic about their endeavor, but it’s not a sure thing. While the Pew Research Center reports that 15 percent of American adults have used online or mobile dating apps – up from 11 percent in 2013 – there are a handful of big apps that attract the largest share of daters. And tapping into the online dating market isn’t easy. Two dating apps that utilize DNA in slightly different, less streamlined, ways than Pheramor have previously launched in Canada, with little success. But Mirza and Barreto remain optimistic.
And while their idea for Pheramor may sound complicated, the science is actually pretty simple.
“Genetic-based human attraction has to do with pheromones. And when we smell pheromones, what we’re actually smelling is how diverse someone’s immune system is compared to our own,” Barreto explained, matter-of-factly.
“Evolution is very strong. So we’re smelling each other, trying to figure out who is the best person to mate with,” she continued. “And that’s what love at first sight actually is. It’s smelling someone’s pheromones from across the room, and your brain says, ‘Oh my Gosh, that’s the most perfect pheromone profile I’ve ever smelled in my entire life. I love them.'”
When someone swabs their cheek with a Pheramor kit, the lab Mirza and Barreto work with isolates and scans 11 genes, which scientists have linked to factors for attraction. (Mirza and Barreto declined to share which exact genes they’re analyzing; they’d rather not give away their algorithm’s secret sauce.)
“That’s it,” said Barreto. “I won’t know what you look like, what your heritage is, what your disease status is. I won’t know any of that. All I know is the 11 genes for attractions, from which I’ll know who you think is hot and who you won’t like.”
That data then heads to Huang’s team, and is dropped into an advanced formula, along with a variety of personality traits pulled from a user’s social media profile.
“All the research shows that initial attraction through your genetics is what will get two people together,” Mirza said. “But what fulfills a longtime relationship is commonalities. So the way we account for both of those is through your genetics, and then through your social media.”
Rather than asking users to fill out their own profiles, Pheramor will pull details from someone’s profiles, like favorite bands and books. Even political affiliations. This will save time for Pheramor’s target demographic – young professionals, between the ages of 18 and 44 who are constantly looking for efficiencies. But perhaps more importantly, it will remove some of the self-reporting bias that comes with creating your own dating profile.
Dating apps are big business these days: The market is estimated to be worth about $2 billion. And more than 40 million Americans rely on dating apps and websites to help them find love. But, according to a report from eHarmony.com earlier this year, 53 percent of people lie on their profiles. And that’s not counting the people who enter such bland answers that they fail to stick out from the pack.
“A lot of our research comes from me using all the apps and coming back to the office, saying, ‘We need to solve this problem.’ So many profiles, people just write, ‘I love adventure, and I’m super laid back.’ And it’s like, ‘Who are you? What does that mean?'” Baretto said, exasperated. “And then you meet them, and they’re not even adventurous. So us building the profile for users takes away the idea that someone has a standard profile that they write to put up on a dating app. Instead, it’s a reflection of how you show yourself on social media.”
Pheramor hasn’t officially launched yet. As of now, the three co-founders are trying to reach a critical mass of users – hence Mirza’s proclivity to swab everyone in arm’s reach. While they’d like to tackle world domination in the future, the co-founders are currently focused on hitting the 3,000-member mark, which is all it will take to create a viable sample size to officially launch in Houston.
And the founders have high hopes that their home city is the ideal place to begin their venture.
“Houston is a place for a lot of med-tech start-ups, and we’re a social technology start-up, and we feel like this is something that we really created a space for in Houston,” Mirza said.
And the demographics here sync perfectly with Pheramor’s market: about one in three people inside the city’s limits is between the ages of 25 and 44, according to data from the U.S Census program. Additionally, the App-analytic firm SmartApp recently ranked Houston as the city with the largest saturation of dating app users in all of the U.S., with 16 percent of residents swiping for love on their phones.
“We want to help the ones who don’t have time to go on seven bad first dates,” Mirza said. “For us, with this app, our data will be able to tell you whether you’re wasting your time or not.”
Sound cynical? It’s not meant too. Barreto constantly emphasizes that while data may be run in labs and on computers, the crux of Pheramor is just as romantic as an adorable meet-cute, in which someone bumps into an attractive stranger on a train, or in a coffee shop.
“I’m a hopeless romantic. And for us, the romance is still there,” she said.
“But there’s metrics behind this,” Mirza added. “So, yes you can meet someone on a train and have that initial attraction. But what if you never met that person? What if the only way you could meet them is through our app? The way I see it, we’re helping you find those missed connections. Because we’re bringing those metrics for what that spark would be. And most people see that spark once or twice in their life. But if you actually knew where that comes from, maybe you’d find more sparks.”