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? Whats 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.


  1. Hope says

    I’m sorry but this is NOT a solution to ending sexual assault! This is doing the exact opposite. Why? This is just further reinforcing the victim-blaming mentality. Just like all the other products out there in the market for women like metal lock panties. Nothing new. Females should NOT have to go to the extra effort to purchase special detectors and locks just to be safe. The real way to ending sexual violence is first and foremost by addressing the fact that the fault is the perpetrator not the victim. You don’t want it to be a society in which we say, “oh well she didn’t use this nail polish so that’s why she was raped”. We need to switch gears from the victim-blaming mentality into focusing on the person committing the crime. This starts by a holistic view, little changes that make a big change.

  2. Joan says

    In reference to the author who wrote this: “I’m sorry but this is NOT a solution to ending sexual assault!”

    I don’t think this is intended to fully be a solution to sexual assault. It does seem, however, intended to help alleviate the problem and help women protect themselves. I agree that women should not have to take these steps – they should be able to live in a safe and free environment. Sadly, that is not the reality. Just because we have an ideal we want to reach does not mean we abandon addressing the practical realities in the meantime.

    Some products out there really are idiotic and don’t properly address the problem, but this seems like a valid way for women to feel safe without going to extreme measures.

  3. BrightTiger says

    I hope that this product will be a clear topcoat or at least come in clear, since many victims of sexual assault (including many men) will be unwilling to wear colors.

  4. Madhu says

    As an NCSU alumna, it is exciting news! This is such a fantasic development….. definitely something than can be used proactively for at least one of the parameters of prevention ( voluntarily ingesting a beverage ). A ‘clear” or colorless version of the product would be of great use for males as well All the Best and Congratulations! Please keep us posted. Thank you and best regards,

  5. Alexandra X says

    I think, in response to Hope comment, that indeed is not a solution to sexual assault, but if a product can make a woman feel safer and actually avoid a potentially dangerous situation, I give my recognition to that. It’s like carrying a pepper spray or -I hate to say this- keep a gun in your house to protect yourself, while the main issue would be to address the fact that we would love to don’t have any thieves, well, they might be out there, and you might be one of their victims, so, why girls can’t have that kind of safety in a discreet and comfortable way? I think this is an amazing idea, and definitely would make perpetrators think twice about spiking someone’s drink. Go for it boys! (and really feel glad that this product comes from guys, it means they are aware of this issue and want to stand up for it).

  6. Erika says

    I think this is a fantastic idea! As someone who has lived though that type of experience, I think this is a very innovate approach to trying to reduce the amount of sexual assaults/harassment. I absolutely do not believe that this is exasperating the idea of blaming the victim. This is a measure people can take to make events such as date-rape less likely to occur within society. Victims should not be blamed, but using a small measure such as painting your nails (which most women do anyway) to prevent a sexual assault/harassment event from occurring is absolutely something everyone should stand behind.

    I support this research 100% and when it comes out, I’ll try hard to be the first person in line to buy/order it.

  7. Samantha says

    This is a fantastic idea! Anything that gives women MORE power to protect themselves is an amazing way to combat sexual assault. One comment above says it’s furthering the victim/excuse mentality – that’s ridiculous. Saying “women shouldn’t have to do [such an such]..” is not an argument. I agree with Joan’s comments and do not belittle such a belief as comment #1 – of course we should be free to do anything we want without fear of assault, but we’re not in a perfect world, are we?

    Giving women simple tools of protection is giving women power to fight. That’s how you stop sexual assault. Guts and science!

    Great work, 100% supported!

  8. Jack says

    In response to Hope’s comment – of course we can’t blame victims of sexual assault, just as we wouldn’t blame someone who’s house was burgled. However, we all live alongside bad people, and if there are measures that can be taken to stop those bad people that is a good thing. This makes sense in the same way as locks on doors make sense, or having a police force.
    My question, however, is this – which date-rape drugs are detected by this nail varnish, and is there any evidence that they are often used? The most common date-rape drug in use today is, of course, alcohol, however it seems obvious that alcohol would not be detected by a nail varnish intended for use on a night out.

  9. Marie says

    This is a fantastic idea! I sincerely hope that it doesn’t get bogged down by the red tape of government, etc. I would have my daughters share with all their friends simply as a precaution and extra protection, because you never know when there’s a person with bad intentions somewhere nearby!

  10. Kera Logan says

    As a victim of sexual assault, I am all for this product. I feel that to welcome this revolutionary product with negativity is counterproductive to this cause. Yes, it would be nice if women could live freely and without fear would be ideal and there have been many who would like to place the blame of the crime on the victims as having provoked the crime. But that is not the world we live in. I would also like to point out that women are not the only victims of sexual assault. I do not share the feeling that this product places the responsibility of the crime on the victims. In fact, I feel that this product shows a great step in the direction of helping end sexual violence. I think this product brings hope, above all, to rape survivors. It is showing that we are ready as a society to address the issue rather than keep it masked in secrecy and shame. I feel that this is an empowering product and that it is a symbol for change. It helps us to reclaim a level of power and confidence in our own self defense. I am ecstatic about this product!

  11. Lori says

    This is a great idea! Don’t let stupid people stop you boys from moving forward with this. At no point did anyone say this will stop sexual assault, but what is wrong with protecting yourself with something that may prevent sexual assault? I will not only get this product for my daughters and nieces but I am a Nail Tech for 20 years and think this is brilliant. I am trying to find info on how to order it as soon as it hits the market as an option for my clients. (and don’t worry all you haters, I wouldn’t charge 0ne penny more for this polish, so I’m not trying to make extra money off of their great idea.) Please continue on with this and I would love more info about when and where to get this once it is available. And as a side note, some of the bad reviews on newsweek were from therapists…haha I guess they think this polish will put them out of business, educated people with NO common sense. Do these same people tell women to walk in dark alleyways and not to be aware of their surroundings? I’m pretty sure they don’t bcuz its all about prevention. There will always be crime and victims. This product won’t stop it but I love that it could prevent it.

  12. Christine says

    When my friend got drugged and raped, I was appalled by the victim-blaming she had to go through dealing with the police. The perpetrator was found thanks to witnesses but she had no legal recourse. Months later the bruises on her arms, knees and legs were still healing.

    **How can this product help us identify the predators and stop them?**

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