Danya Sherman, a sophomore student at George Washington University, studied abroad at la Universidad de Sevilla in Spain in the summer of 2016, and she lived on the international floor, surrounded by 20 male Italians, none of whom spoke English, except for one who knew just a little. She held a party to get to know the guys on her floor, but when only her one English-speaking friend came to the door, things took a turn and she woke up the next morning in a daze, and she knew of only two things that had transpired. She had been taken advantage of, and her drink was laced with a date-rape drug right in front of her eyes.
Not even a year later, Sherman stood on the stage of the Jack Morton auditorium with the prototype for a napkin that detects for date-rape drugs and a jumbo-sized check of $5,000 to make this new product a reality. Sherman’s company KnoNap was one of the 12 finalists for the ninth annual George Washington University New Venture Competition held April 20.
While KnoNap did not place in the competition, Sherman and her colleagues Colten Eberhard, senior, and Connor Varley, junior, took home the Audience Choice Award and a check at the end of the night.
First place went to Urgent Wellness, which is an emergency care center for homeless shelters that is a cheaper substitute for the emergency room. Second place went to Berg Bites, which is a healthy snacking alternative. Third place went to Agaport, which is an online platform that helps people search for storage space in international Freeports.
The finalists were only 12 of the 116 total entries, competing for a combined total of $300,000 in cash and in-kind prizes, such as business cards and office space, according to the programs distributed at the event. The Audience Choice Award was the only award chosen live at the event, and the 696 people who either attended or watched on Facebook Live voted using an app designed specifically for this event.
Sherman’s product stemmed from an assignment in her women’s entrepreneurial leadership class. “It’s one of those classes that changes your life,” she said.
Sherman initially pitched an idea for a stir stick that would indicate if a date-rape drug was present in a drink. After patenting and trademarking research, she realized that while others had come up with similar ideas, the products never got off the ground because they couldn’t get FDA approval because they required putting testing chemicals into the drink in question.
After nearly dropping out of the competition, Sherman decided to adapt and find a new product idea that would achieve the same goals. Her father suggested the idea for a napkin, and she was intrigued. “The more I looked into it, I was thinking ‘why hasn’t someone created this before?’”
The final product is a 3-ply napkin that looks and behaves like a normal napkin, but contains a layer of testing chemicals and polylactic acid in between two layers of tissue paper. When a sample from a drink is placed on the outer rim of the napkin, the napkin noticeably changes colors if the drink is laced, Varley said.
Sherman and her team settled on a napkin because they felt it was effective and discreet. In their presentation, they compared KnoNap to other products on the market that also test for date-rape drugs, including a nail polish that changes colors if the drugs are present and a coaster that has testing regions. They explained that the nail polish was unsanitary because after dipping their nail into the drink and realizing the drink had been laced, the victims keep the substance on their fingers, which can be dangerous if it gets near their eyes, mouth or face.
Semi-finalist judge Anna Consani thought this was an important consideration. “I just thought, oh my God, you’re right,” she said. “If something like that happened to me, I’d probably be crying and I’d definitely touch my eyes.”
Consani also mentioned the disparity in the market between products for men and women. “If it was a guy’s problem, we’d have 20 solutions by now,” she said.
KnoNap was the buzzword at the networking event that followed the final ceremony. Spectators Susan McCusker and Claire McLane were especially impressed by KnoNap. “They had a very touching story and a wonderful idea,” McCusker said.
“It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the girl,” McLane added.
Final judge Erin Horne McKinney said that Sherman had a compelling story, but she was worried about the scalability of the product. “You have to wonder ‘would [potential victims] be able to use something like this?’” McKinney said.
She mentioned that in a lot of cases, predators lace the second or third drink their victim consumes, and that potential victims may not be coherent enough after a few drinks to properly test their drinks. The KnoNap team is still developing the technology for the product, and they are refining details about how exactly the product will be used.
Annamaria Konya Tannon, Chief Evangelist for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has judged many startup competitions in the past. She expressed similar concerns about KnoNap, and offered her own reason as to why they might not have taken home one of the top prizes. “They have to spend some time developing tech and testing it,” she said.
“KnoNap is such a needed product and such a clear idea,” Konya Tannon said. “They’re gonna make it.”
Sherman specifically hopes to implement the KnoNap in college campuses, where date-rape is more common. “The goal of it is not as much to sell napkins, but to actually create social change,” she said.
KnoNap plans to launch their product by winter of 2018. The first step of their business plan is to sell to restaurants and bars in D.C., and they also hope to target fraternities and sororities on local college campuses.
“I’m taking a very crappy situation and trying to empower myself and other women and men who have been in similar situations,” Sherman said.
In their study of 150 students at 10 universities across America, KnoNap found that 53% of students aged 18-27 either knew someone affected or were personally affected by a date-rape drug. This new survey, coupled with the national average of one in five women and one in 16 men who experience sexual assault, reassured Sherman that the issue is a prominent one.
“This isn’t an instance that happens just surrounded by complete strangers,” she said. “It’s something that can happen to anyone and by anyone.”
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website, nine out of 10 victims of sexual assault on college campuses knew the person who sexually assaulted them. The Department of Justice reports that about six in 10 schools in the United States offer safety-related educational programs and only 60% of those programs address sexual assault. Additionally, only about one-third of safety-related educational programs on college campuses include acquaintance rape prevention.
Sherman said that KnoNap is looking into partnering with a women’s health organization and donating a portion of proceeds towards education and a sustainable way to continue educating women and men on ways to be safer in social settings.
“My mom used to say to me ‘things happen to you for a reason, but it’s not what happens to you but how you handle the situations after,’” Sherman said, pulling back a strand of hair. “I feel like this is one of those instances where I can make myself proud.”