Bill Gates is asking investors and scientists to develop a new gadget—an improved condom.
It may seem like a job for Trojan, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants new condoms. The unique request is part of its “Grand Challenges in Global Health” initiative. The program awards grants of $100,000 and follow-up grants of as much as $1 million to individuals who develop solutions to global health issues. The latest report details successful recipients combating malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis.
According to the Grand Challenges website, “Condoms have been in use for about 400 years yet they have undergone very little technological improvement in the past 50 years.” The only major improvements include the switch to latex and quality control measures to test each individual condom during production. Both of these measures increased the effectiveness of condoms, but the basic design of condoms has yet to transform.
Condoms are the most ubiquitous defense against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. This undervalued resource is a lifesaver in developing countries. Condoms should be necessary for sexual health, but many men and women shy away from using them due to discomfort, societal stigmas, and reduced sensation. Some cultures perceive condom use as a sign that the person has AIDS.
The Gates Foundation hopes to eliminate these concerns so more people will use condoms regularly. The challenge seeks to make prophylactics more user friendly. “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,” said Stephen Ward, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The program is limited to condoms rather than multi-purpose prevention devices (such as vaginal rings) because these programs are not readily available worldwide. The condom is still simple enough that it can be distributed at a low cost. Not to mention, condoms are useful even in communities that lack health care professionals. “Any advance or new design that gets people to use condoms would be a big plus,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s leading AIDS researchers.
Applicants must complete a two-page application by May 7. Two frontrunners have already emerged. Origami, a California company, focused on usability and comfort. They are creating a new silicone injection-molded condom. University of Washington researchers look to increase the effectiveness of anti-HIV drugs. Their model features electrically spun fabric that allows sperm-blocking drugs to dissolve more quickly.