We'll spare you the penis jokes about Bill Gates and his condom campaign. You've probably already heard them, and, anyway, they're besides the point. (OK - that's the only one).
The announcement last week that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded 11 innovators with $100,000 apiece in the attempt to "develop the next generation of condom" is not simply about making sex more fun; it's about making sex more fun so people will use them, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, where the prevalence of unprotected sex harms and claims countless lives.
The 70 other innovations that won grants through Gates' Grand Challenges Explorations include efforts to harness data for humanitarian aid in crises or to support education in Nairobi slums and labor-saving technology for women farming small plots of land in sub-Saharan Africa. Unsurprisingly, the condom news seemed to get the most buzz - and the requisite puns.
[Read: U.S. News Sexual Health Center.]
But the story is serious and sobering. While the threat of HIV and AIDS no longer looms quite so large over the developed world, it's real and rampant in sub-Saharan Africa. Seventy percent of the world's more than 35 million people living with HIV are located in this region, according to amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. The statistics are even more alarming when it comes to children - citing data from 2011, the World Health Organization reports that sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 90 percent of the 3.4 million HIV-positive kids, most of whom were infected by their mothers through pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding.
More appealing condoms could encourage usage and help stop the spread of HIV and AIDS along with other sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, goes the thinking at the Gates Foundation. While the foundation called for innovations in both male and female condoms - a pouch inserted into the vagina before intercourse to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases - only proposals for male condoms were selected among the more than 800 ideas submitted. These were the most scientifically sound solutions, explained Papa Salif Sow, the foundation's senior program officer in HIV prevention. However, Sow stressed the need for better female condoms and his hope for future proposals, noting that in many countries women "don't have the power to negotiate sex" - and often find female condoms difficult to use.
[Read: Vaginas and Vulvas 101.]
Sow, who is Senegalese, says men in sub-Saharan Africa complain that condoms diminish the pleasurable feel of sex and fear usage may kill their erection. "The idea is having new materials, which will be thinner and stronger and make the two partners more closer in having the heat transfer very easily, so that the people can have sex without having any fear for the sensation and the pleasure," he says. "We have all these different channels for education, for improving health knowledge, but what is lacking is basically new technology."
Specifically, the Gates Foundation is seeking a more satisfying condom that would be easier for men to put on and affordable and accessible in developing countries (along with the issue of demand, is one of supply, often referred to as the "condom gap" in developing countries). Should any of the condoms enter the market, they would likely be made available worldwide, Sow says. But first, the winners must test their ideas over the next 12 to 18 months before applying for a second grant - up to $1 million - that would go toward commercialization.
The ideas at work include a hypoallergenic "wrapping" condom made of polyethylene proposed by the California Family Health Council that "clings to surfaces rather than squeezes" and a concept out of Boston University that uses a nanoparticle coating that traps water to reduce friction and could incorporate elements to reduce infections.
Among the winners is Jimmy Mays, a chemistry professor at the University of Tennessee who's spent more than 20 years perfecting a type of thermoplastic elastomers that could be used for a variety of applications, from adhesives to condoms. "Our material allows us to adjust the properties so that we can get more stretch," says Mays, explaining that he achieves the desired effect by manipulating molecular structure.
"We can make it softer to the touch or stiffer to the touch," he says. Plus, less material would be needed to manufacture the condoms, making for a potentially cheaper product, he says. "The invention is really just a tiny part of it. It's the beginning in many ways," he says. "But being able to make a lot of the material so that you can really study the processability ... that's the very expensive part and that's the more difficult part."
The latest round of funding marks the 12th edition of the Gates' Grand Challenges Exploration, says spokeswoman Amber Zeddies. With four to six topics each year, she says the program has funded such concepts as dirt-powered cellphones and a mosquito-fighting patch that's poised for market - innovations that "if they even have a shot at working, could literally save hundreds of thousands of lives."