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  (Source: Laurel Street/Undercover Colors)
Student-laucnhed startup draws serious investment intention, aims to test for GHB, roofies, and ketamine

There’s bad news out there for individuals looking to spike ladies' drinks with so-called "date rape" drugs such as (RS)-2-(2-Chlorophenyl)-2-(methylamino)cyclohexanone (ketamine), 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) (aka: "Molly"/ecstasy) or γ-Hydroxybutyric acid (GHB). Soon women may have nail polish that can change colors when it detects foul play.
 
The project is the work of a group of students from North Carolina State University (NC State) and other nearby universities.  Its founding members include Duke University PhD candidates Ankesh "Anku" Madan (cited as the company's spokesman) and Tasso Von Windheim, both of whom are NC State grads.  Other members include NC State undergrads Stephen Gray and Tyler Confrey-Malone (listed as CEO on his Facebook page).  Recently, Georgia Institute of Technology student Laurel Street joined the team as Undercover Color's director of social media.

Undercover Colors
Meet the Undercover Color team (left to right): Laurel Street (social media director), Ankesh Madan (spokesman), Stephen Gray (co-founder/engineer), Tasso Windheim (co-founder/engineer), Tyler Confrey-Malone (CEO). [Image Source: Facebook]

To be clear, they haven't actually made this nail polish quite yet.  But they appear to have a clear vision of what they want to make and a potential path of getting there.  The students call their initiative "Undercover Colors".

In a recent interview co-founder and spokesman Ankesh Madan -- now a PhD candidate at Duke University -- recalls:

We [were] 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!

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.

Undercover Colors


The group's Facebook describes:

In the U.S., 18% of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That's almost one out of every five women in our country. We may not know who they are, but these women are not faceless. 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.

For our first product, we are developing a nail polish that changes color when it comes in contact with date rape drugs such as Rohypnol, Xanax, and GHB. 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.

Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk that they can get caught. In effect, we want to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators. We are Undercover Colors and we are the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault. 

Such technology isn't exactly unprecedented.  Tallahassee, Florida-based DrinkSafeTech markets coasters and business cards that can test for the presence of GHB or ketamine.  The company's products have received widespread media coverage, and some universities have embraced its product as a campus rape-prevention tool.

DrinkSafeTech
DrinkSafeTech makes coasters and wallet-size business cards that can detect some date rape drugs.   

However, the company has also received some criticism -- even of the peer-reviewed kind [PDF] -- for allegedly luring people into a false sense of safety, when its products fail to test for some of the most common date rape drugs, such as "Molly" or 5-(2-fluorophenyl)-1-methyl-7-nitro-1H-benzo[e][1,4]diazepin-2(3H)-one (aka "roofies", or less commonly known as "Narcozep" or"Rohypnol").  Also the DrinkSafeTech can lead to hurt feelings or misunderstandings given its relatively conspicuous nature.
 
By contrast, a nail polish detection kit would be much more discreet; in fact one of its slogans is "empowerment through discreet functional fashion".  And it aims to detect more kinds of drugs, including 8-Chloro-1-methyl-6-phenyl-4H-[1,2,4]triazolo[4,3-a][1,4]benzodiazepine ("Xanax") and the aforementioned "roofies" (Rohypnol).
 
So far Undercover Colors is seeking crowd sourced funding via online donations portal CloverDonations.com, which offers both one-time and recurring donation options.  A post from late April indicates that in its first month of having an active online presence, its site drew 275 donors.
 
The young group is participating in Ground Works Labs, an NC State-affiliated incubator located in Durham, North Carolina.  It's also working with the NCSU Entrepreneurship Initiative (NCSU EI), an NC State service which connects student entrepreneurs with venture capitalists and veteran business advisors.  The group's concept is already picking up interest.  It won the best New Venture Challenge and the Design and Prototype Challenge at the 2014 Lulu eGames, a local startup competition sponsored by the NCSU EI.

Undercover Colors
Undercover Colors drew honors at the Lulu eGames challenge.


Most recently the startup has reached the semifinals of the Kairos Society's K50 competition.
 
The technology seems far-fetched, but color-changing nail polishes such as heat-based In The Mood and light-activated Del Sol already exist.  Probably the biggest challenge or potential downside is that in this case the polish will need to be in direct contact with the beverage, meaning that it will have to make due without protective clearcoats or other layers to prevent chipping.
 
And the critics are already out in force.  Some rape advocates are pointing out that a large percentage of rapes both on and off campus are committed by someone the victim trusts.  In that case these tests might not do any good, as the victim might not have thought to use them.
 
That said, the technology clearly has won over a number of believers; the startup's Facebook page has 23,000+ likes.

Sources: Undercover Colors [website], [Facebook], Higher Education Works





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