Earlier this year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched a new campaign to help improve sexual health around the world: a contest encouraging people to try to build a better condom. They asked people to submit innovative ideas for “the next generation of condom,” emphasizing that the new models should “preserve or enhance sensation.” Globally, it’s estimated that just five percent of men use condoms, and the primary reason they say they avoid this type of barrier method is because it makes sex less pleasurable.
People around the world were eager to participate in the Gates’ contest, which will award up to $1 million in funding to develop and distribute the winning condom. The Foundation received 812 different ideas — and this week, announced 11 winning designs that will move onto the next round. Those first-round winners will get $100,000 each to start developing their ideas.
So what are the types of innovations that could signal the future of condoms?
Beef tendon and fish scraps, for one — a team from San Diego used these animal parts to create a thin condom that feels more like human skin than typical latex versions. Other submissions are made from high-tech materials, like “superelastomers,” which don’t tear as easily as latex and could actually be cheaper to produce. Nearly all are focused on ensuring a thinner barrier and a better fit. Some hope to make it easier to put on a condom when a couple is fumbling in the dark, adding tabs on the side or designing sleeker external packaging.
Stephen Ward, a program officer at the Gates Foundation, told the New York Times that the content submissions tackled a range of different issues that men may experience with traditional condoms — like lubrication, friction, and heat transfer. Some of the round-one winners may actually be asked to team up to put elements from both of their ideas into one condom design. “There’s not one magic bullet,” Ward noted. “The idea is making them easier for people to use in the moment, in the dark, whatever situation they’re in.”
Although there have been plenty of public health campaigns intended to encourage condom use, they haven’t typically focused on enhancing sexual pleasure.