It’s Valentine’s Day, so romance is in the air. But it’s not the smell of Axe Body Wash or Chanel No. 5 that will do the wooing. It’s the scent that comes from the unique combination of proteins that pepper the surface of our cells, helping our immune system tell the difference between friend or foe.
At least that’s the matchmaking strategy being embraced by DNA Romance, a Vancouver, B.C.-based startup that launched in 2014.
“We are deciphering the essential elements behind the ‘scent of love’ and the ideal personality combinations for successful relationships,” said co-founder and CEO Timothy Sexton.
DNA Romance generates potential matches based on a DNA analysis of genes involved with immune system response that research has connected to human attraction.
It appears that people with greater differences in their receptors — known as the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC — are more likely to be appealing to each other. Opposites, it seems, do attract — which has the evolutionary advantage of potentially creating kids with a wider range of immuno-weapons for fighting disease.
As an added layer of screening, the service also uses the results of Myers-Briggs personality tests to match singles.
People can use a kit purchased from DNA Romance to sample and create their genetic blueprint, or share their results from one of the other DNA sequencing companies. Then DNA Romance applies its proprietary algorithm to the DNA results, adds in the Myers-Briggs analysis and runs the combo against the site’s other users, which number between 8,000-12,000 (Sexton declined to give an exact number).
The company promises to generate potential matches within 30 minutes of providing your data.
While the idea of bringing scientific rigor to dating holds an appeal, some researchers are skeptical that these genes provide meaningful insights into love connections. A 2018 article in the Smithsonian advised that “experts caution the science behind matching you with someone who has different immune system genes remains theoretical,” though Sexton countered that the story incorrectly mixed up the idea of pheromones with MHC-driven attraction.
Sexton, who has a Ph.D. in population genetics and a bachelor’s in biochemistry and molecular biology, is convinced by the research, and the DNA Romance website links to more than two-dozen research papers on the topic.
He touts some anecdotal evidence as well.
Sexton met DNA Romance co-founder Judith Bosire through OkCupid.
On his initial dates with Bosire, they talked about the concept of DNA-based matchmaking. Sexton explained the science and Bosire, who holds master’s degrees in economics and international development, considered the business case, asking why DNA-driven dating was not already being used. It appeared that the backend was difficult to code, Sexton said, requiring input from experts in fields including genomics, dating, software engineering and business.
“Despite the challenges, we were still curious and decided to collect a DNA sample from both of us, and then prepare our couples DNA comparison,” he said. “It was a nerve-wracking few weeks waiting for the DNA testing and the analysis to be completed.”
The test confirmed that they were a match, and the couple ultimately married in May 2016.
Bosire is the chief financial officer for DNA Romance and a senior associate for Deloitte. The third member of the founding team is Abhijit Pandhari, now a project manager at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Shortly after launching, the trio participated in UBC’s Lean Launch Pad accelerator.
Other contributors include Benard Ebinu, a Google engineer who helped build the software side of DNA Romance, and lead investor Carolyn Timms, a psychology researcher at James Cook University who developed the personality compatibility rating.
The startup has raised $120,000 from friends and family and has customers in 93 countries. Their business model was initially subscription based, but in the fall they shifted to selling home DNA testing kits and online advertising to generate revenue. The kits — on sale for Valentine’s Day — cost $74.75. DNA Romance is available online, with plans to develop mobile apps.
Competitors in the DNA-assisted dating space include Pheramor, GenePartner and Instant Chemistry.
We caught up with Sexton for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: DNA Romance is an online dating platform where predictions of romantic chemistry are made online. DNA Romance also evaluates personality compatibility using information from Myers-Briggs personality types. Like other dating apps, users also see a photograph of each match allowing them to evaluate attraction to appearance.
Inspiration hit us when: We had suffered from online dating fatigue! Judith and I had both been using online dating for about four years before we meet on OkCupid, both of us had several mismatches dates — with no “chemistry” at all. As a population geneticist, I understood that while online dating provided many choices, mismatching was occurring because the online sites were failing to predict chemistry before a first date. Online dating sites were overlooking decades of scientific research validated in independent labs showing that there was a genetic basis for romantic chemistry, and the mode of action was similar in all vertebrates.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: We have bootstrapped in order to demonstrate the vision and attract investment from accredited investors. In recent weeks we have been talking to angel investors, VCs and even larger dating sites to secure our next round.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Romantic chemistry is written in your DNA code, and DNA Romance translates this genetic information into actionable advice to help your dating life. DNA Romance has developed a technological pipeline that has been improving with every customer. At the heart of our business is the DNA Romance matchmaking algorithm, which identifies the DNA markers of interest and calculates predictions of romantic chemistry between our members.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: We didn’t hire full-time employees until our growth trajectory was clear. We have hired or contracted subject matter experts who could help to make DNA Romance a reality.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: We did not fully understand the challenge of educating people about our product. Consumer genetics is a fairly new field with precision health applications finally catching on. We also wish we had learned to code before day one. This would have made the overall development less stressful and costly.
Which entrepreneur or executive would you want working in your corner? In an ideal world, we would love to be advised by Markus Frind, founder of the Vancouver, B.C.-based online dating service PlentyOfFish. He built the company and sold it to The Match Group (owner of Match.com and OkCupid) for $575 million.
Our favorite team-building activity is: A day hike up a local mountain has so many benefits: We share spectacular views, take a break from technology and achieve a tough goal together.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: We look for the smartest people available with a passion for our product and the company. It’s important for us to be able to meet every new hire in person.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Get out of the office and talk, people will only invest their time and money if they know you and believe in your vision, not everyone will like your idea if they don’t just move on. Starting a business is an endurance contest, strap in for the long haul and get multiple revenue streams flowing early.