Condoms offer cheap, effective protection against sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy, and save lives every day. The problem is, many men don't like wearing them. They believe condoms reduce sexual sensation, so choose to go unprotected, putting themselves and their partners at greater risk.
Back in March, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued a worldwide call for new condom concepts in an attempt to address this issue, and it was inundated with more than 500 applications, ranging from the seriously scientific to the deeply silly (like this slingshot applicator).
Below are the eight of 11 ideas the Foundation has chosen to go forward to Phase I of the process, each of which gets $100,000 for development. In 12 to 18 months time, it will make a further assessment, and award up to $1 million to projects it feels can make it to market (we'll be surprised if it's the one made from "bovine tendons" but you never know).
As well as improving sensation, the Gates Foundation also wanted solutions making "donning" condoms easier. That's where Project Rapidom comes in. Developed by Kimbranox, a company in South Africa, this applicator lets men (or women) put on the rubber in one motion, opening the wrapper and applying the condom with minimal fuss.
Several of the concepts reduce the loving-distance between partners, for instance by thinning the condom wall and/or improving heat transfer. By incorporating graphene, a new super-strong, conductive material, Lakshminarayanan Ragupathy, from HLL Lifecare, in India, hopes to do both, creating a thinner, warmer product.
A team from University of Oregon promises "Ultrathin Adaptable Condoms for Enhanced Sensitivity." The concept calls for elastomeric (elastic) materials that shape-shift when exposed to body temperature "thereby improving tactility and enhancing sensitivity."
The Cambridge Design Partnership, in the U.K., plans to develop the "Dynamic, Universal Fit, Low Cost Condom." Its submission describes a product that has "multiple polymers with a specific geometry that cause the condom to gently tighten during intercourse." Which certainly sounds intriguing.
California Family Health Council's "wrapping condom" gets as thin as possible, while maintaining strength. A non-toxic polyethylene material "clings to surfaces rather than squeezes thereby enhancing sensation and enabling easier application."
Many of the condoms aim to reduce unnecessary friction, on both sides. This idea from Boston University, has a "super-hydrophilic nanoparticle coating to better protect against breakage" and "traps a thin film of water to reduce friction and shearing forces."
Jimmy Mays, at the University of Tennessee, plans to make condoms using Superelastomer, a new type of rubber that can be stretched thinner than conventional materials and still maintain strength. It's "injection moldable," meaning the design should be cheap to produce.
Strangest of all, perhaps, a team from Apex Medical Technologies, in San Diego, conceives a condom made from "collagen fibrils from bovine tendons, which are widely available from meat processing." Says the submission: "collagen fibrils would provide a hydrated micro-rough skin-like surface texture that facilitates heat transfer, to produce a more natural sensation." Not one for vegetarians, presumably.
Papa Salif Sow, the Gates Foundation's senior program officer in HIV prevention, says these choices aren't the end of the condom search. In September, the nonprofit announced a second call for initial concepts.
Nor are condoms the only contraceptive the Gates Foundation is investing in: it also has resources set aside for gel microbicides, cervical caps, and long-acting antiretrovirals. "The idea is to offer the population, male and female, tools of choice to prevent HIV or sexually transmitted disease, or for family planning reasons. We are open to have many products that will be helpful," Sow says.