If we could design a condom that improved sensitivity and durability, would people be more willing to use them? That was a question posed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations initiative last March. The Foundation views improving “one of the oldest medical devices in existence” as an important way to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS. Last week, GCE announced the winning proposals from Phase One of their next-generation-condom project, each of which will receive $100,000 to continue development. “GCE is a tool we use for experiments and ultimately we decided it was worth the experiment to determine if there really is untapped innovation [in condoms],” said Steve Buchsbaum, GCE head, in a Reddit AMA following the announcement. “So far, we are pretty excited about what we are seeing, but ultimately it is a long road to create new products and get them adopted.” We spoke with some of the grantees about how they’re rethinking 400-year-old technology.
Shockingly, sensitivity is a major reason men say they don’t wear condoms. Lakshminarayanan Ragupathy of HLL Lifecare Ltd. in Kerala, India, proposes incorporating a carbon derivative known as “graphene”—the same material that might one day give us flexible computers—into current condom materials to improve heat transfer without sacrificing on strength and elasticity. The proposal says the mix will “produce thinner heat-conducting condoms, and incorporate drugs and compounds to further enhance safety as well as sexual experience.”
Project Rapidom Condom
South Africa’s Kimbranox Limited decided to focus not on the condom itself but on issues arising from application. “Manual application of condoms takes time, which can lead to incorrect positioning as it interrupts the sexual act,” says principal investor Willem van Rensburg. The Rapidon is designed to make putting on a condom easier—and therefore getting down to business quicker—by turning the packaging into a fail-safe applicator as the user opens the condom wrapper.
Universal Fit Condom
Benjamin Strutt, Head of Design at the Cambridge Design Partnership LLP, also seeks to tackle issues relating to traditional condom sizes’ interference with natural sensations. The firm’s “Universal condom for improved reliability and sensation” addresses the issue by gently tightening during intercourse, providing a custom fit every time. “By taking condom design into the 21st century, and aiming to enhance the sensory user benefits, we are hoping to tackle the social stigma surrounding the contraceptive,” says Strutt.
Nanoparticle Coated Condom
Although modern latex condoms are one of the best defenses against sexually transmitted diseases, unexpected tears and breakage can occasionally still occur. Boston University Medical Center’s Karen Buch and Ducksoo Kim believe they can make condoms more durable using a super-hydrophilic nanoparticle coating. The coating traps a thin film of water which reduces friction and shearing forces.
To battle concerns over condom thickness, Richard Chartoff of the University of Oregon proposes developing condoms with “shape-memory.” Built out of elastomeric materials that are high-strength and ultra-thin, Chartoff’s condoms take shape only after exposure to body temperature during application, helping to enhance sensitivity in the process.
ow thin can you make a condom? That’s the challenge the California Family Health Council hopes to solve with his polyethylene version. “The material is approximately 1/5 as thick as standard latex, yet significantly stronger,” says Ron Frezieres, Vice President of Research and Evaluation at CFHC. The condom clings rather than squeezes—think Glad Cling-Wrap for your johnson—which enhances sensation and promises to be less restrictive than latex. Working with an existing polyethylene condom maker in Columbia, CFHC will improve the product by adding an alternative lubricating system and detachable pull-tabs for easy application.
Jimmy Mays of the University of Tennessee sees great condom-making potential in Superelastomers, a technique that improves the processability and recyclability of rubbery materials. Mays says the Superelastomer technology will allow him to make condoms that are not only ultra-thin, ultra-soft, strong and tear resistant but less expensive. “Low-cost ultra-thin condoms will encourage use in developing countries limiting population growth and spread of disease,” he says.
Reconstituted Collagen Condom
In what’s maybe the most unusual-sounding proposal, Mark McGlothlin of Apex Medical Technologies, Inc. proposes making condoms made from cow tendons. The San Diego-based scientist says the collagen fibrils inside the tendons—commonly available from meat-processing plants—could be reconstituted to provide a skin-like surface texture that produces a more natural sensation than traditional latex condoms. “After working for over 20 years developing condoms with new and improved materials, we concluded that even the newest-material condoms that were both thin and strong were perceived by users to be unnatural feeling and therefore interfered with natural sexual expression during intercourse,” says McGlothlin. “With recent tissue-engineering advances, we believe it’s practical to produce condoms from reconstituted collagen fibrils. Collagen is the material from which both skin and mucosal membrane consists of, and the condoms should be perceived by the users to be part of their partner, not an unwanted interloper.”