By Peter Shi T’16

Ankesh Madan is a first year Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Duke University. Tasso von Windheim is a first year Ph.D. candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering. While pursuing their undergraduate education at NC State University, Ankesh and Tasso co-founded Undercover Colors, a company that hopes to help prevent drug-facilitated sexual assault through a nail polish that changes colors to detect date rape drugs in alcoholic drinks.

Our Conversation with Ankesh and Tasso

Duke I&E: Tell us about yourselves.
AM: I was born in Thailand in 1993. I stayed there for 3 years, until I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where my dad worked. In 1999, my family moved to the US. I attended NC State for undergrad, and now I’m back at Duke for grad school.
TVW: I was born in Guelph, Ontario in Canada, though I’ve lived in Raleigh, NC for most of my life. I attended NC State and graduated with a degree in Materials Science, which is where I met Anku and our other two co-founders. Now, I’m at Duke doing my PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Duke I&E: What were some of the most important experiences growing up early in life?
TVW: When I was in seventh grade, my family drove from Raleigh, NC down to a small town in Costa Rica called Nosara, a tiny village with dirt roads. When I was there, I was able to have my independence and grew as a person. I rode my bike everywhere. I went down to the river and went fishing every day, went surfing, and went to school. That gave me a really interesting perspective on what it’s like to go to school in a small, poor village. Also, my father’s involvement in entrepreneurship really helped get me interested in entrepreneurship as a child, which I think is not so common for a lot of kids.
AM: My dad is one of those people who started in engineering and transitioned into management. Over time, I got to see that transition, because I grew up with a problem-solving mentality. I was able to learn both the technical and business side of entrepreneurship from him. For example, I built a radio when I was really young because of my dad’s encouragement. I attended all of the science fairs. Science and engineering have always been my gem, and they still are. It was during the middle of high school that I really focused on science and engineering.
Duke I&E: How would both of you describe your organization?
TVW: Undercover Colors is a company focused on reducing the rate of drug-facilitated sexual assault through a nail polish. The polish changes color in the presence of date rape drugs. I was motivated to tackle this issue because this was a problem that I had heard about from people in confidentiality. It was something that was occurring with relative frequency throughout campus, and yet nobody was talking about it. I saw Undercover Colors as a means to use technological innovation to prevent drug-facilitated sexual assault and also as a means to get the conversation going by centering it on a technology for this nail polish that people were already familiar with. It seemed like a great way to get the conversation started.
AM: At the beginning, I appreciated the ability to take my engineering and technical background and apply it in a different context. There were are a lot of organizations that try to raise awareness about different issues of drug-facilitated sexual assault and women’s rights and issues. However, they tap a certain population, and there’s a certain population that listens and appreciates that message. Yet, there’s another entire audience that’s not being touched, because that’s not the type of message that they would like to hear. Taking that into the land of investors and commercial development can help bridge the gap between this existing core of social activists and others. This will allow us to reach a broader group of people.
Duke I&E: Where did the initial idea for Undercover Colors come from?
TVW: For me, it comes down to the fact that I didn’t want to see my friends hurt by this issue anymore. After hearing from several people that this had happened to them, I really thought that by giving people the ability to detect a drug in their drink by simply swishing their finger in their drink was a great, discrete way to handle this problem.
AM: Our co-founder Steve had the idea of putting it into a nail polish, and we all laughed at him at first. We replied, “What are you talking about? What kind of idea is that?” Then, a few minutes later, we all looked at him and said, “Wait, that’s actually a really good idea. We should really explore that.” It was one of those moments of serendipity where Steve had the idea, and it happened to be a brilliant one.
Duke I&E: How have your entrepreneurial experiences affected the way that you work and live?
TVW: I think that it’s given me a lot more confidence in myself. I think prior to this and even while we in the process there were many times that I thought that as young entrepreneurs “OK, we probably won’t be able to make this happen.” We can create a good marketing plan, but I never expected it to explode like this. After seeing the wonderful reception we’ve had from the public and from our investors, it’s really given me the confidence that there are few limits on what you can actually do with a great idea.
AM: Same. In the past, we heard about these companies, we heard about these people who have these ideas, and –ta-da—something happens. Knowing that it happens versus understanding that it’s something that can be accomplished are two different things. That’s a different experience. For me, the entrepreneurial bug has bitten. And once it has bitten, that’s something that you can’t not do. The way that I approach a lot of the things that I work at now is more from a problem-solving approach, in which I’m thinking about how I can maximize impact on the local population or whoever it is being affect by it. Even thinking about my research for my PhD., I learned to understand how it has direct impact and application on society. I realized that it’s not just about the creation of an idea or a concept, but it’s about producing a direct benefit.
Duke I&E: You mention execution. One thing that is necessary for execution is vision. Do you have a vision for your own life that guides your decisions and your actions and priorities?
TVW: I don’t have a distinct roadmap. I tend to be free flowing. I adhere to several values that I have set for myself, and use that as a guide. That way, I feel that I’m more open to change. When something doesn’t adhere to plan, it throws me completely out of whack. I think that adhering to my values has been what has guided me.
AM: I was more outcome-oriented before Undercover Colors. With Undercover Colors, I realized that I really love the process of getting there and, like Tasso, focusing on processes. I really like the part that is not just the inception of the idea and the end outcome, but also the process of getting there and learning to love that process. My overall goals and vision aren’t to have a certain outcome, apart from general benefit for society, but to be involved in processes that follow my values and will produce some sort of benefit. It’s flexible – it can be through any type of industry or any type of medium.
Duke I&E: Has your vision changed at all when you are going through the entrepreneurial process?
TVW: Without Undercover Colors, I don’t know if I would be where I am today, because that was a big motivator in helping me complete my PhD, and it also let me to try to think about how my PhD could lead to a lot of entrepreneurial paths. Before Undercover Colors, I was most interested in getting a job and getting a bit of money through my early to mid-20s. With Undercover Colors, I saw what an impact I could make with a small knowledge base. I figured that by expanding my knowledge base in what I was really interested in, which are photoelectrics and thin films and photovoltaics, I could create more value for society.

Duke I&E: What people, groups, and networks have been important in your life and in helping you to achieve your vision and goals?
TVW: For me, the network that we developed at NC State was invaluable both for the success of me as a person and the success of the startup. Specifically, the entrepreneurship initiative at NC State was extremely helpful. I had two of my professors write my recommendation letters for grad school. I was extremely close to the professors in that program.
AM: For me, I would separate it into three separate networks. I started with the School of Science and Math network. I’ve cultivated a lot of close friendships there, and I can always bounce ideas off of them and asking them for what they think about different issues.

Duke I&E: What advice would you give to students at Duke who are interested in growing their own network?
TVW: Talk to everybody.
AM: Be extremely detailed and prompt with your emails. Editing and diction really do matter.

To learn more about Undercover Colors, visit its website.

To learn about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.