Mixing advanced chemistry with traditional cosmetics, a team of four undergraduates at NC State University is taking a creative approach to combatting sexual assault, creating a nail polish that changes colors in the presence of common date-rape drugs.
“In the U.S., 18% of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime,” the NC State team said in a Facebook post. “That’s almost one out of every five women in our country. They are our daughters, they are our girlfriends, and they are our friends.
“While date rape drugs are often used to facilitate sexual assault, very little science exists for their detection. Our goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.”
This spring, Undercover Colors won the Lulu eGames student competition, sponsored by NC State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative to challenge students to design working solutions to real-world problems. Teams and individual students went head-to-head for the chance to win seed funding for their ventures.
“For our first product, we are developing a nail polish that changes color when it comes into contact with date-rape drugs,” the Undercover Colors team wrote. “With our nail polish, any woman will be empowered to discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger. If her nail polish changes color, she’ll know that something is wrong.”
In an interview, team member Ankesh Madan talked about what it took for him and his teammates to manage an undergraduate research project, and how universities can continue to promote business innovation among students.
Q: How did the idea for Undercover Colors come about?
Ankesh: Undercover Colors started out as an idea born in my co-founders’ active imaginations. As we were thinking about big problems in our society, the topic of drug-facilitated sexual assault came up. All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience, and we began to focus on finding a way to help prevent the crime.
We wanted to focus on preventive solutions, especially those that could be integrated into products that women already use. And so the idea of creating a nail polish that detects date rape drugs was born.
Q: How did you meet and recruit your teammates?
Ankesh: We’re all from the same major, in Materials Science & Engineering (MSE). None of us really knew each other before our senior year, but we were all interested in entrepreneurship, and we knew about the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program (EEP). We ended up joining the EEP a couple of months late, and we bonded over the mountain of work we had to do to catch up with the other teams!
Q: What kind of support has NC State offered?
Ankesh: NC State has been invaluable to us. We have been able to use lab space through the College of Veterinary Medicine, which is one of the only locations in North Carolina where we can test DEA Schedule 3 and Schedule 1 drugs. Our main technical advisor, Dr. Nathaniel Finney from the NCSU Chemistry Department, is a world-renowned expert on indicator development and has volunteered his time to help advise us on prototype development.
The Undercover Colors team is also piloting the first-ever Entrepreneurship Initiative Fellows Program, which allows us 6 months of continued access to university resources and a stipend, even after we’ve graduated. That should really help us get a marketable product off the ground.
Q: How did you find time to work on this as an undergraduate?
Ankesh: Ha! That’s a great question. Long hours, late nights, and a lot of open communication so we all knew when any of us had too much on our plates. Luckily, we could afford to spend so much time on Undercover Colors because parts of the project were also class assignments for our senior design course, which really helped us pace our development and allowed us to learn an incredible amount in such a short time.
Q: How can universities encourage this kind of entrepreneurial work among students?
Ankesh: The University, through the EEP (Engineering Entrepreneurs) Program, has made a strong first step by integrating engineering disciplines into a startup atmosphere. I think they could do even more to bring together students from other disciplines such as business, marketing, and computer science so that founders can recruit the talent they need from anywhere on campus to make their idea a reality.
Institutional support really on any level is helpful, but above all, just exposing students to the entrepreneurial groups and spaces on campus is a great way of making sure that all available resources are being used to the fullest extent.
Q: Where do you hope to take this venture? What’s your vision for Undercover Colors, both near-term and long-term?
Ankesh: We’d love to take Undercover Colors to the next level and take our product to market. Near-term, we’re focusing on technical development and market testing. We plan to focus on business development and refining our prototype before going to production.