Four engineering students started with a problem: how could they help prevent the use of date rape drugs to commit sexual assault, a crime that has impacted several of their closest friends.
After thinking about ways to ensure that perpetrators are caught and prosecuted, one had an idea: why not try to prevent the crime in the first place by giving women a discreet and fast-acting way to test their drink at a bar or college party before taking that first sip?
Their idea is to develop a clear fingernail polish that changes color when put in contact with a date rape drug. A woman at a party could simply stir her drink with her finger to check that it hasn’t been altered.
Started from a senior design project in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at NC State, Undercover Colors is now a company with seven full-time employees, investor backing and worldwide attention. It’s a company that offers survivors hope that others won’t have to go through the same trauma. As one sexual assault survivor told the team, “I know it won’t make my daughter invincible to the risk of sexual assault, but it will at least provide a little peace of mind to every woman in the entire world.”
The story of Undercover Colors’ growth from idea to company offers a glimpse at how NC State, and specifically the College of Engineering, teaches entrepreneurship and then supports its students’ and faculty members’ efforts to build companies that create jobs and change lives.
“We wouldn’t be here,” said Tyler Confrey-Maloney, CEO of the company and one of those four MSE senior design students. “Our company simply wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for NC State.”
An entrepreneurial ecosystem
MSE students hadn’t been allowed to participate in the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program (EEP) before. But Confrey-Maloney and partners Stephen Gray, Tasso Von Windheim and Ankesh Madan pushed to complete their senior design project as part of the program, established at NC State in 1993 by Dr. Tom Miller to provide an immersive entrepreneurial education experience for engineering students.
Once they settled on an idea, the group began spending 40 hours a week working in the library during the middle of the night. That was on top of their busy senior year class loads.
A breakthrough came at the 2014 LuLu eGames, an annual business start-up competition that’s part of the Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI), a university-wide entrepreneurship program that grew out of EEP.
Undercover Colors won eGames, along with $13,000 to put toward a product. They were also introduced to their first investor, an NC State alumnus and entrepreneur who was one of the judges. That investor would later introduce the students to a community of investors tied to NC State.
Invigorated by their eGames victory, the team kept working. Miller served as an advisor. So did Dr. Nathaniel Finney, a former chemistry professor at the university who is now a member of the company’s Technical Advisory Council.
After graduation, all four had job offers or chances to attend graduate school. Was it worth it to continue pursuing this dream?
Miller created a bridge program that provided a small stipend (Miller refers to it as “rent and Raman noodles” money) to keep the company going as it sought further funding. The EI had taught them how to craft a business plan and pitch to potential investors. Those skills paid off and they continued to improve. They learned about patent law and received help in securing the exclusive rights to create and manufacture the product.
“It was clear that they had the smarts to do this, that they had the motivation and drive to do it, that they had enough of the basic science figured out to have a plausible chance of getting there,” Miller said.
That’s when a story about the company posted on a Triangle business website went viral. Undercover Colors and the idea behind it were on every major news website and all over social media. Just a few months after winning eGames, their company was being discussed on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Confrey-Maloney said it was as “exciting as it was frightening. One moment we were students with an idea and some promising research, and the next we had the attention of the entire world.”
The company was still in its infancy and not looking for attention, but the exposure led to survivors of sexual assault and others reaching out with messages of encouragement. They knew they were on the right track.
Today, Undercover Colors is located in the university’s Technology Incubator on Centennial Campus. Confrey-Maloney is the company’s CEO. Gray is its COO. Madan and Von Windheim, both engineering Ph.D. candidates at Duke University, are working part-time.
They have developed several color-changing compounds and are now testing them first in a tube and then on a nail surface. Confrey-Maloney said the company will likely partner with an established cosmetics manufacturer to get the product into users’ hands as quickly as possible.
The company has been approached by most major cosmetics players, who have expressed interest in manufacturing and selling the product. Undercover Colors is backed by individual angel investors (rather than venture-capital firms) and the vast majority of those investors have been NC State alumni or have some connection to the university.
One part of a larger effort
Statistics show that 18 percent of women will fall victim to sexual assault during their lifetime. So, along with their business duties, Confrey-Maloney and Gray spend several hours every week volunteering with InterAct of Wake County, a Raleigh nonprofit that provides services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Confrey-Maloney is a sexual assault emergency responder trained to assist survivors as they talk to police and are treated by a nurse. Gray volunteers on the agency’s 24-hour telephone crisis line.
Confrey-Maloney says Undercover Colors is but “one small part of a larger effort to combat sexual violence.” That effort includes outreach, prevention, victim services and culture-shifting. He hopes the company’s product will serve as a deterrent to those who use date rape drugs, shifting a sense of fear potential victims might feel and putting it on the perpetrators.
“As a community, we need to come together and put an end to this epidemic. That change has to start by talking about the issue and providing survivors with the services they need to heal.”
Von Windheim is the son of an entrepreneur. It wasn’t until he grew older and saw the impact his father’s work could have that he began to see starting a new company as more than a path to wealth.
“You can make money a thousand different ways. But, having the opportunity to make such a huge difference in people’s lives – to prevent such extreme pain – that’s a rare opportunity. It’s something I’m very proud to be a part of.”
When he’s not volunteering, working in the lab or speaking three or four times a week on sexual assault prevention, Confrey-Maloney serves as a mentor to other NC State student entrepreneurs working their way through business plans and seeking investment. They work, learn and hang out together. On Sunday nights, they gather to watch “Silicon Valley,” a television comedy about life in a technology startup.
His friends are working on ways to help smokers quit, use infrared light to detect food pathogens and bring bee hives to urban areas.
“Those are the kind of people I want to spend my time around,” he said. “Entrepreneurs with bright ideas and the ability to execute can have a tremendous impact on the future of society, and NC State’s really at the forefront of developing and supporting these kinds of people.”