AUSTIN, Texas — On a warm evening in March, sorority girls in sundresses and frat guys in moisture-wicking polos lined up at Cain and Abel’s, a popular bar near the University of Texas at Austin, for a drink ticket and a chance at everlasting love — both courtesy of Ilios, a dating app that matches users based on their supposed astrological compatibility.
The students fumbled to find their IDs and download the app on their phones (several had to ask for help spelling the company’s name) as they approached the bouncer, daunted perhaps by the possibility of discovering their soul’s twin flame at such a young age. But all were swayed by the promise of a free Texas Tea, a cousin of the Long Island Iced Tea that contains approximately 78 different spirits.
Ilios is part of a constellation of popular apps, including Co-Star, Sanctuary, the Pattern and Nebula, that aim to illuminate interpersonal connections using astrological signs. It had taken over the bar for two hours on a Thursday night for the latest in a series of launch events that have been as quiet and as soft as a mouse tiptoeing across a Tempur-Pedic mattress. There was a “silent launch” in Los Angeles in May 2021, then a “restricted launch” in Austin in November 2021, and a party that Ilios hosted with the University of Texas chapter of the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau.
“We’ve been very subtle in our launch because we’re constantly trying to improve,” said Gracian Mariathasan, 47 (an Aries), who founded the app with his brother, Marion, 46 (a Leo).
At Cain and Abel’s, interest in the app generally fell along gender lines. Most of the men knew their zodiac signs, but that’s where their curiosity ended. “I think for a week in seventh grade I was like, Whoa, that’s so me. And then I was like, ‘Oh wait, no, I don’t care,’” said Luke Anderson, 21, a Pisces.
Women overall were more engaged with the concept, specifically two who were emphatic about never again dating Scorpio men. “But Scorpio women are amazing!” Faith Barzilla, 21, assured this Scorpio reporter.
“It’s basically like a weird statistic,” said Lexi Brooks, 23, an Aries who had sworn off Scorpios. “It’s just like the stock market — you predict what’s going to happen based on trends.”
At one crowded, beer-slicked table, a group of women expressed mixed feelings about Ilios. Some thought an astrology dating app would be good for hookups, but not anything serious. Swati Sharma, 21, described her relationship with dating apps in general as complicated. “Most of it is material for my stand-up,” she said.
This gender imbalance is a positive for Ilios, the Mariathasan brothers said: where the women go, guys will follow. “It’s a great thing for us, from a marketing standpoint,” Gracian said. More limiting for the company: The current battery capacity of smartphones, which remains disproportionate to the data needs of this country’s young scholars. Two women said that while they were intrigued by the app, they couldn’t explore it right now because their phones were about to die.
Though the app assesses compatibility on several other (notably nonscientific) planes — there’s a lifestyle compatibility score, numerology score, as well as an overall compatibility score — Ilios plays up its astrological features.
Flyers for the Cain and Abel’s event asked invitees if they were ready to meet their “celestial match.” The T-shirts Marion brought to hand out at the bar were emblazoned with the question “Do our stars align?” on the back. (Dating apps like Hinge, Bumble and Tinder allow users to include their astrological signs in their profiles, but it’s not their primary feature.)
Bela Gandhi, a dating and relationship coach and the founder of Smart Dating Academy, in Chicago, said she hasn’t had any clients come to her with astrological concerns or preferences. But she thought the idea of an astrology dating app was nice, especially if it helped people connect or feel a sense of romance. “There’s something beautiful about thinking my love was preordained by the stars,” she said.
The idea for Ilios first came to Gracian in 2018. He was having dinner with a fellow engineer, who was bemoaning how superficial dating apps felt, and how he didn’t have time to sift through all of the profiles to find a promising match. Gracian started thinking of ways to filter matches that might encourage a more substantive connection, and remembered his grandmother and his aunt in Sri Lanka discussing the astrological compatibility of various couples when he was younger.
From a data standpoint, the idea intrigued him. “As an engineer, the challenge was, what do you use as factors?” Gracian said. “How do you take the information that people are willingly submitting to an app without asking too many invasive questions?”
In June 2018, Gracian brought the idea of an astrology-based dating app to Marion, an entrepreneur who has invested heavily in cannabis companies, and the two slowly started building Ilios together. (This means the app itself is a Gemini.)
Ilios is financed primarily by Marion’s venture firm, Ceylon Solutions, as well as the brothers themselves, though Marion said they’ve lined up several private investors. “Many of these family offices are older folks,” Marion said. “They’re not on dating apps, but their children are.”
While those millennials and Gen Zers may be bullish on astrology, some experts are skeptical of its use in the dating realm. They expressed concerns about people summarily disqualifying potential matches based on some element of their birth chart, instead of taking the time to get to know each other and disqualifying them based on something more meaningful, like their personality.
“I’m a total astrology geek. I use it and I love it,” said Tara Aal, a board director of the International Society for Astrological Research. “Where I’m not so in favor of it is when we limit ourselves by saying, ‘If that person’s Venus is in that sign, then they can’t match with me.’”
In terms of complexity, synastry — the examination of the interplay between planets in two different charts — falls somewhere between an advanced placement calculus class and the moon landing. In Western astrology, each person’s astrological chart includes 10 planets, each with its own sign, and 12 houses into which each of the planets fall. Synastry analysis includes the composite chart, which takes two charts and smashes them together to create one shared chart that contains within it as many details about a relationship as there are grains of sand on earth.
“It’s not just one conversation between two parts. It could be 50 different conversations between different parts of me, between different parts of you,” said Clarissa Dolphin, another astrologer and board director of the International Society for Astrological Research.
The Ilios team isn’t getting into the astrological weeds just yet. “We don’t want to get too deep,” Marion said. “For people that really want to go down the rabbit hole, there are plenty of horoscope sites. This is for educating yourself on a surface level, and if you’re looking for a friendship or relationship.”
Marion said there are currently just over 6,000 users on the app. In the coming months, the company plans to expand to larger cities across the United States, like Denver, Chicago and New York, as well as Toronto and eventually to India.
At Cain & Abel’s, some patrons questioned Ilios’ marketing tactics. One student, Santiago Faus, 22, a Virgo who was accompanied to the bar by his Dalmatian, Pluto, wondered whether it was wise for Ilios to target fraternities and sororities.
Mr. Faus said that many of University of Texas students who choose to rush and pledge have “certain priorities that don’t align with that introspection” that astrology offers.
As he sipped on his beer and pondered his fellow students’ capacity for interiority, Mr. Faus admitted he wasn’t the target audience for Ilios. He already has a girlfriend, and he’s not a big fan of astrology.
“It’s a lot to keep up with,” he said. “I can barely wash my own dishes, you know.”