May 15, 2013

Whatever happened to genetic matchmaking?

Online dating websites are very lucrative, and the competition between them is immense. Every other advert on the London Underground seems to be for a dating website catering to one demographic or the other.

A few years ago, a number of startups began to offer online dating based on genetic profiles. Members would send in a sample of their saliva, from which DNA would be extracted. Next, the genes encoding the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) would be genotyped and added to the member's profile. The theory was that we are sexually attracted to partners who have different MHC genes to ours. An algorithm would then identify partners that were a good genetic match.

There were at least half a dozen startups that tried this, including, Gmatch, Basisnote, and GenePartner. All of them, with the exception of GenePartner, are now out of business.

Why didn't this business model work? I don't know about you, but for me, it's a lot more fun to think about why a business might fail instead of why it might succeed. I have several hypotheses:
  • It's not particularly romantic to find your partner on the internet. Finding your partner based on a genetic test that is likely to be obscure to most people is even less romantic. Actually, it'd be hard for me to come up with a less romantic scenario.
  • Most people (including me) will assume that things like personality, interests and looks are more important in a partner than their MHC genotype. 
  • Presumably dating websites have to balance their male and female membership. My guess is that the majority of people interested in finding a partner through genetic matchmaking are male. 
  • This type of service may attract people with certain undatable characteristics. 
  • The science behind genetic matchmaking is shaky. I only reluctantly include this point because I consider this an unlikely reason for business failure. After all, shaky science doesn't stop other online dating websites that use unvalidated algorithms.
Unfortunately, I have no privileged insight into why the genetic matchmaking startups actually failed, and I'd therefore love to hear from you if you have any other ideas. 

Disclaimer: My interest in genetic matchmaking is entirely professional in nature. However, should you avail yourself to any of the still functional services I have mentioned in this post, I'm not going to judge you. At least I will try not to.