Bill Gates' philanthropy continues to press hard on issues that may seem odd, but are actually essential to propping up the developing world.
Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) selected a reinvention of the toilet that functions as a solar-powered wastewater treatment system. Now, Gates is challenging inventors to use improvements in materials science to develop a condom that feels good.
As part of the BMGF's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiatives, the foundation is offering a $100,000 grant to someone who is willing to design a "next generation condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use."
The idea is that, as reliable and easy-to-use as condoms are, men supposedly experience more pleasure having bareback sex than they do using a condom. The challenge asks:
Is it possible to develop a product without this stigma, or better, one that is felt to enhance pleasure? If so, would such a product lead to substantial benefits for global health, both in terms of reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancies and in prevention of infection with HIV or other STIs?
The challenge states that condoms have been in use for around 400 years, and have not improved in the past 50 years. However, the scientific advances made in the past 50 years, the initiative reads, have not been applied to this important area:
Material science and our understanding of neurobiology has undergone revolutionary transformation in the last decade yet that knowledge has not been applied to improve the product attributes of one of the most ubiquitous and potentially underutilized products on earth. New concept designs with new materials can be prototyped and tested quickly. Large-scale human clinical trials are not required. Manufacturing capacity, marketing, and distribution channels are already in place.
A better feeling condom could go a long way to convincing some men that they might as well roll one on before sex, if only for their own safety. However, the question of how a condom feels during sex isn't the only factor that has prevented the condom from better curbing STIs and the AIDS epidemic seen in some regions of the world. Religious beliefs in particular continue to hinder the distribution and adoption of condoms in the developing world - and those can't simply be engineered away.