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NCSU students developing nail polish to detect date rape drugs

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- Courtesy of Undercover Colors
The founders of Undercover Colors, left to right: Ankesh Madan, Stephen Gray, Tyler Confrey-Maloney, Tasso von Windheim.

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RALEIGH Four N.C. State University students have dreamed up a striking way to detect date rape drugs that’s getting some major media buzz.

It’s also generating a backlash from people who say it doesn’t get at the root causes of rape.

The idea: nail polish formulated to change color if you dip your finger in a drink spiked with one of the incapacitating drugs, such as GBH, Rohypnol or Xanax.

This simple approach fired the imaginations of journalists around the world this week, just as the college fall semester was getting underway.

It also has caught the eye of at least one local investor, who has reportedly pumped $100,000 into the project. It won $11,250 this past spring in the university’s Lulu eGames, a contest sponsored by Lulu.com and the university’s Entrepreneurship Initiative that’s aimed at encouraging students to develop solutions to real-world challenges.

The startup is called Undercover Colors, and its slogan is “The First Fashion Company Empowering Women to Prevent Sexual Assault.”

The idea isn’t entirely new. There were already startups promoting date-rape detectors built into drinking straws, coasters, drinking glasses, lip gloss and a small device you dip into your drink. Another company also claimed to be developing a similar nail polish, called Dip Tip, this spring.

Few seem to have actually reached the market, but interest in them has been high, and all generated media splashes.

And now it’s Undercover Colors’ turn. Stories on the fledgling company have appeared this week in the Daily Mail and The Guardian in Great Britain, Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Reddit.com, Salon.com, USA Today and Buzz Feed, among others.

It’s unclear how far along in development the nail polish is, or when it might come to market. The students who started the company, all of them men in the materials science and engineering department, are declining interviews.

“At this point, we are early in the development of our product and are not taking interviews or doing stories,” Stephen Gray, a spokesman for the group, wrote in an emailed statement.

Stepping into a minefield

Even so, they have not only got a whirlwind taste of the startup world with the wave of attention and investment, they also stepped into a societal minefield: the politics of sexual assault.

One question about the nail polish is precisely how big a problem it seeks to solve.

Susan R.B. Weiss, associate director for scientific affairs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, said that data on the subject are sparse but that the use of date-rape drugs is probably not common. Alcohol is by far the drug most likely to be involved in rape, Weiss said.

For various reasons, it may never be clear just how common it is for surreptitiously planted drugs to be used in rapes. In part that’s because most rapes aren’t reported, and when they are, it’s often after any trace of drugs has worked its way out of a victim’s system.

There are at least some data, though.

A 2007 study of college students by RTI International in Research Triangle Park supports the notion that alcohol is the drug most linked to rape. The researchers found that 11.1 percent of undergraduate women had been sexually assaulted while incapacitated, and the large majority reported that what had knocked them out was alcohol.

Only about 0.6 percent reported being certain that their sexual assault occurred after they were given a drug without their knowledge or consent. Others thought they had been drugged but weren’t sure.

Alcohol a greater risk

“Clearly, undergraduate women are at much greater risk of sexual assault that occurs in the context of voluntary consumption of alcohol and/or drugs or that is physically forced than sexual assault that is drug facilitated,” concluded the researchers, who were funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Anti-rape activists have begun voicing objections to the nail polish.

The fact that date-rape drugs aren’t a major factor in sexual assaults is one issue, said Rebecca Nagle, co-director of a group based in Baltimore called FORCE.

“These four young men took an approach based on some pretty popular mainstream views about how sexual assault happens and who it affects,” Nagle said. “We need to have conversations about how sexual assault really happens, and we have to be talking about it accurately, because basing our fears on assumptions actually doesn’t get us very far.”

Rape is an epidemic in the United States, Nagle said, and one factor that allows that is victim blaming.

The nail polish would perpetuate that, she said. Suddenly, it would be a woman’s responsibility to use the polish. Otherwise, if you become a victim of assault, then some would say that the rape was your fault because you didn’t test your drink.

It would simply put another burden on women when the real causes of rape are elsewhere, she said.

“Yes, we need to take steps toward ending rape and preventing rape, and it’s really not the responsibility of people who might be raped to do that. It’s actually the responsibility of two groups of people,” she said. “One is the perpetrators. People need to stop raping people. And then it’s also the responsibility of communities and our country.”

Founders respond

On Tuesday, Undercover Colors co-founder and CEO Tyler Confrey-Maloney posted what appeared to be a reaction to the backlash on the company Facebook page:

“We are grateful for and encouraged by the support we’ve received over the past few days … We hope this future product will be able to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators, creating a risk that they might actually start to get caught.

“However, we are not the only ones working to stop this crime. We are taking just one angle among many to combat this problem. Organizations across the country need your support in raising awareness, fundraising, and education.”

Among those Undercover Colors recommends, he wrote, were: The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network; Men Can Stop Rape; and Raleigh-based InterAct.

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