Over the course of a long history, the condom hasn’t changed that much. (Andrew Brookes/Corbis)
“The common analogy is that wearing a condom is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,” Dr. Papa Salif Sow, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, tells The New Republic. “A redesigned condom that overcomes inconvenience, fumbling, or perceived loss of pleasure would be a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty.”
But how do you improve on the good ol’ latex sheath? Well, 812 people sent in ideas, and on Wednesday Bill Gates’ charitable endeavor announced 11 finalists, each of whom were given $100,000 to pursue their quest for a superior condom.
Condom technology has basically stayed the same for at least 500 years; the biggest innovations have been the switch from linen and lamb’s intestine to latex, and the addition of a reservoir tip. There has been tinkering like adding flavoring, colors, stimulating textures, and anti-ejaculation chemicals. But what condom breakthrough could be worth $1 million, the potential payoff from Gates if any of these ideas pan out?
Some of the 11 projects build on previous innovations, and the Gates Foundation may ask two or more finalists to work together on a condom design, says program officer Stephen Ward. “There’s not one magic bullet,” he tells The New York Times. “The idea is making them easier for people to use in the moment, in the dark, whatever situation they’re in.”
Without further ado, here are Bill Gates’ 11 potential condoms of the future:
1. The tenderloin
Boring, actual name: Ultra-Sensitive Reconstituted Collagen Condom
Developer: Mark McGlothlin at Apex Medical Technologies, San Diego
Innovation: McGlothlin decided that the best way to make a condom that feels like a second skin is to reinvent the leather condom, in this case using collagen fibers from bovine tendons. Yes, it’s a cow condom. On the one hand, porking with beef sounds very unappetizing. On the other, says Chris Higgins at Mental Floss, “leftover beef tendons are cheap, and they’re also strong natural materials.”
By embedding very thin fibers from them in a cross-linked pattern, a strong-but-thin organic material is created. Researchers also note that the “micro-rough” quality of collagen is great for heat transfer, which lends itself to a plethora of “hot beef” jokes that we’ll leave to your imagination. [Mental Floss]
2. The shrinking sheath
Boring, actual name: Dynamic, Universal Fit, Low Cost Condom
Developer: Benjamin Strutt at Cambridge Design Partnership, Cambridge, England
Innovation: Strutt has repurposed a “composite anisotropic” material — it is stronger when force is applied to it in certain directions — to create a one-size-fits-all condom “designed to gently tighten during intercourse, enhancing sensation and reliability.” In other words, the condom shrinks onto the penis during sex, making it feel more invisible and reducing the chance of leakage.
3. The handle bar (aka The big easy)
Boring, actual name: Project Rapidom
Developer: Willem van Rensburg at Kimbranox (Pty) Limited, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Innovation: Van Rensburg has already created a stir by creating a condom with applicator handles, and he promises to improve the design with the Gates Foundation money. The idea is that men are more likely to use a condom if they can put it on quickly and correctly, without too much interruption. “In sub-Saharan Africa, sex is basically done with low light and it might be very difficult to see the direction of the condom,” explains Dr. Sow.
Here’s an earlier iteration of van Rensburg’s condom handle in action:
4. The Saran wrap
Boring, actual name: Ultra Sheer “Wrapping” Condom with Superior Strength
Developer: Ron Frezieres at California Family Health Council, Los Angeles
Innovation: If Strutt’s condom shrinks, Frezieres’ is supposed to cling — as in the polyethylene film you use to wrap up and cover your food for refrigeration. Frezieres says he wants a condom that “clings like Saran Wrap rather than squeezes,” and he’s found a prototype in Colombia.
The Colombian version is already sold in eight countries, says The New Republic‘s Andy Isaacson. Frezieres group plans on “perfecting its design, replacing the oil-based lubricant for one that’s silicone-based, and working through the requisite FDA approvals.” The American version of the condom will also borrow a page from van Rensburg and contain tabs to help don the sheath. Unlike van Rensburg’s, the pull tabs are part of the condom, not the packaging. You can see an illustration of Frezieres’ condom in action here.
5. The Model T
Boring, actual name: Engineering a Biologically Inspired Condom
Developer: Patrick Kiser at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
Innovation: Kiser proposes to create a new polymer compound similar to lubricated skin, then use the material to mass-produce condoms. “These technologies could improve sensation and the condoms would be readily manufacturable for deployment across the globe,” Kiser says in his pitch.
6. The warm embrace
Boring, actual name: Graphene-Based Polymer Composites For High Heat Transfer, Improved Sensitivity And Drug Delivery
Developer: Lakshminarayanan Ragupathy at HLL Lifecare, Trivandrum, India
Innovation: The big advance in this Indian condom is the use of graphene, a crystalline form of carbon that is super thin, super strong, and very flexible. “It also conducts heat,” the Gates Foundation notes. HLL Lifecare “will mix graphene with currently used condom materials to produce thinner, heat-conducting condoms, and incorporate drugs and compounds to further enhance safety as well as sexual experience.” Hot.
7. Daddy’s little helper
Boring, actual name: Super-Hydrophilic Nanoparticle Condom Coating
Developer: Karen Buch and Ducksoo Kim at Boston University
Innovation: Nanoparticles. Buch and Kim will dress up their condom with “a super-hydrophilic nanoparticle coating” that will add a thin layer of lubrication, helping protect the condom from breakage.
8. The memory stick
Boring, actual name: Ultrathin Adaptable Condoms for Enhanced Sensitivity
Developer: Richard Chartoff at the University of Oregon, Eugene
Innovation: Chartoff proposes developing a strong, ultra-thin, shape-memory material from polyurethane elastic polymers that will activate with warmth. “Think of something similar to shrink wrap that conforms to the shape of an object as it is heated,” says The New Republic‘s Isaacson. “Now think of a penis: During intercourse, body heat would cause molecules in the condom to contract, molding it to the user.” The material would also be about half as thin as latex condoms.
9. The cheating heart
Boring, actual name: The Condom Applicator Pack (CAP)
Developer: Michael Rutner and Russell Burley at House of Petite Pty, in Sydney, Australia
Innovation: Rutner and Burley also tackle the problem of having to put on a condom with your bare hands. Their plan is to create a universal condom applicator that can be used to make sure the prophylactic is put on correctly and without tearing a hole. The condom helper will be conveniently packaged with a condom.
10. The invincible Trojan
Boring, actual name: An Enhanced Condom Using Nanomaterials
Developer: Aravind Vijayaraghavan at the University of Manchester, England
Innovation: Vijayaraghavan and his team are also proposing to create a new material using graphene. Their condom material will be designed with his pleasure in mind, but it will also be durable. Really durable. “Graphene is unbelievably strong (roughly 100 times stronger than steel),” notes Mental Floss‘ Higgins, and this “could lead to a nearly indestructible condom.”
11. The invisible glove
Boring, actual name: Ultra-Sensory Condoms Based on New Superelastomer Technology
Developer: Jimmy Mays at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Innovation: Mays is going for realism, in the form of a highly elastic polymer called superelastomers. That should allow for soft, super thin, and cheap-to-produce condoms. “The goal is to make a condom that has the same texture as human skin — you won’t even know it’s there,”Mays tells The New Republic. He’s been researching this kind of soft, durable plastic for 25 years, and the Gates thing sparked an epiphany. “I’m not a condom guy,” he tells The New Republic, “I’m a polymer chemist, and our material was tailor-made for this purpose.”