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A Reinvented Condom You Actually Want To Wear, Coming Soon From The Gates Foundation

They’re looking for a more pleasurable STD and pregnancy prevention device that people will actually use. They already have proposals for one made out of silicone and one made out of—we’re serious—electrically spun fabric. What else will condom innovators come up with?

The humble condom remains our best defense against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. It is the one device that protects against all risks, is easily transportable, and cheap to produce as well. In places where more expensive options are unavailable, it is already a life-saver.

The problem is many men don’t like wearing them, despite the threat to themselves, and their partners. Studies in the developing world show that cultural factors, misconceptions, and a belief that condoms reduce sensation, all lower rates of use.

"People’s assessment of their own risk is sometimes not realistic," says Stephen Ward, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Sex is a powerful motivator. When you’re talking about reducing the pleasure someone can derive from sex, and you add that to a poorly understood risk, you can see how the desire for better sex wins."

The Gates Foundation is launching a "grand challenge" to find fresh condom concepts. It wants to hear from material scientists, product designers, and sex experts interested in making prophylactics more "user-friendly."

"This is an opportunity for people in all areas of research to think about a problem they might not have thought about before," Ward says. "If we could make something better, we could have a really substantial effect on HIV prevention and unintended pregnancy in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia."

Researchers are developing alternative "multi-purpose prevention devices" like vaginal rings and "co-formulated injectables." But Ward says they’re "years away from deployment into hands of people who need them," and that a better condom could save lives in the interim.

The submission period runs until May 7, but will probably be extended for another six months this fall. Initially, at least, the bar for practicability is not high. Researchers need only fill out a two-page application, and prove the concept works in basic terms. "We’re looking for a couple of experiments to show the idea has legs," Ward says. Winning entries get $100,000 for further development.

Ward and his colleague, Papa Salif Sow, hope to get hundreds of ideas, but there are two they like already.

Researchers at the University of Washington are working on a very fine electrically spun fabric made of nanometer-sized polymer strands that dissolve to release sperm-blocking and anti-HIV drugs. And, Origami, a company in California, is developing a silicone injection-molded condom that it says is easier to put on, and more pleasurable to use.

"Origami are taking an innovative design-centric approach to making condoms with the sensual experience at the forefront, understanding the user preferences of the populations they are testing in," Ward says. "The electro-spun approach is a new technology. The Origami is a good example of a new philosophical approach."

If you have an idea of your own, the Gates Foundation wants to hear from you. The application page is here.

Add New Comment


  • jana

    Nothing like headlines that presume a male audience to reveal the sexism deeply embedded at FastCo.

  • hkrieger

    I suppose they are looking for a condom that will take the place of a vagina. Then there will be no danger of HIV or unwanted pregnancies.

  • Paul_Rand

    hopefully people wont contract polio like the kids in India because of the Gates foundation's vaccine.

  • John

    They’re looking for a more pleasurable STD and pregnancy prevention device that people will actually use. They already have proposals for one made out of silicone and one made out of--we’re serious--electrically spun fabric. What else will condom innovators come up with?

  • John

    Kinda like how Apple never has an update? At least Bill is going to cure Polio in our lifetime. Malaria is next after that. I'll gladly sit through the update in exchange.

  • Guest

    How about just making an online database and including everyone who has an STD in the database?

    If you have an STD, you're going in the database. No if's and no but's. If you don't, you're not placed in it.

    Giving someone a specific STD is like a death sentence. If registered sex offenders have their own database, so should those with STD's.

  • Espen

    And what, introduce mandatory testing?

    No, a better option would be a database of clean and recently tested people. Opt-in of course.

  • iamhungry

    No need for a tech solution. Just get everyone with an STD to wear a little badge. or get tattooed.

  • John

    Tao Phillips, many seniors communities are rife with mate-swapping. My brother, while visiting our folks, who were then in their 70's, received several overtures, mostly quite discrete, in private homes, at poolside, in restaurants and drug stores. He's neither a great looker nor remotely qualified to do gonzo porn, but he is remarkably fit for a 50 y/o. These gals weren't always alone and were generally willing to fill him in on the extent of the local action. (I got the sense that there might be social benefits to bringing in fresh produce.)

  • disqus_HS3S5MQZ9K

    Scott Dideon, 
    This is the most biased comment I've read outside of political rants on a news feed in a long time.  From your esteemed writing, I don't believe you've been to Africa, much less understand how sex works.  The percentage of married unfaithful men in the US is 57%.  It is actually better in Africa than here in terms of monogamous sexual morals, the continent just happens to contain Ugandan monkeys that led to the initial infection of SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus).  I would argue that many countries across Africa, specifically because if the life trials the continent faces due to former colonization and European/American  abuses, are more religious than the US.  At the very least a billion people across an area more the 2x the size of the United States shouldn't be judged as you have.

    It is also absurd that you would place the blame for the spread of a pandemic disease solely on men in such a 'loose moraled' environment.  your views are uneducated absurdities in the extreme, to think that an uninformed western view of morality is really the cause of world issues.  I suppose you believe terrorists hate us for our freedom as well, as opposed to needing money and opportunities to feed their families or being pissed about us constantly bombing their countries and arming their enemies.  Please read more books, don't vote in the next election, and don't comment on threads until you can establish a well informed opinion.

  • shomac

    Condoms don't protect against "all risks." Even with a condom, you are still exposed to HPV and the herpes virus. That is why the rates of both viruses are so high. The female condom does a slightly better job of protecting against the viruses because it actually covers a portion of the labia.

  • Scott Dideon

    So rather than spend billions teaching men in Africa that having monogamous relationships is the right thing to do morally and it isn't appropriate to rape the 14 old girl next door, we are on the campaign for free sex without consequences.

    AIDS is out of control in Africa because of cultural and moral issues, not because the men need an electronic condom.

    This is absurdity at its extreme where we don't dare judge individuals actions and try to promote any moral decency.  The women are abused ... with billion dollar condoms, they will only be abused all the more.

  • John

    Tao, well said. We know the topic will attract the jokesters…it's too easy not to. Fun to read them but all jokes aside, the goal of the ORIGAMI Condom brand is to introduce new types of condom technologies that feel like 'sex without a condom' . . . the real deal. If condoms can incorporate design that addresses consumer complaints and user preferences we can create a fantastic sexual experience that is both safe and pleasurable. Thanks for the comment.