Two years ago, in March 2013, Bill Gates announced a new project through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund research into next generation condoms. Although cheap, simple to make, and widely available worldwide, Gates noted that there's still one massive barrier to seeing this disease- and pregnancy-preventing miracle of modern contraception used regularly and reliably: Most people think they feel like shit, robbing us of the sensation that makes fucking fun. So, Gates figured, perhaps if the Foundation offered $100,000 grants for research into new materials and designs (and up to $1 million for the development of successful concepts) they could incentivize a breakthrough in condom technology that'd finally make them feel good, increasing contraceptive usage worldwide and bettering global health and family planning in the process.
The world has responded to Gates's call with gusto. As of today, 52 research projects have received grants from the Foundation. Many of these projects focus on how we put on condoms, reducing psychological barriers to usage, innovative new materials, or lubricants and gels to make them more pleasurable.
But of all the fascinating new condoms in the works, one of the most interesting is the (as-of-yet theoretical) hydrogel condom. An initiative from a group of material scientists at Australia's University of Wollongong, who had little (research) experience with condoms until they got their Gates grant last June, "Project Geldom" hopes to use this ultra-strong and skin-like material, famous for recreating bodily tissues in prosthetics, to get closer than ever before to recreating the feel of unprotected sex while still offering protection—in the process displacing latex. But beyond just feeling natural, the Wollongong researchers believe that their hydrogels could actually improve on the feel of natural sex, building in automatically released internal lube and Viagra for instance, to make people not just accept condoms, but want to use them.
At the moment, the Wollongong team is still proving that their material can match the contraceptive power of latex and preparing for biometric tests to see exactly what effects on sensation their hydrogels can have. But while we wait for their new magic condoms to come onto the market, VICE caught up with project leader, Dr. Robert Gorkin, to talk about the origins of the idea, hydrogels, and improving on natural sex.
VICE: Where did this idea come from? I know you were working with hydrogels before this project started, but how did that turn into… condoms? Robert Gorkin: Yeah [ laughs]. We were at an institute that was looking at materials for next generation 3-D printed implants and bionics, prosthetics, and whatnot. We were working in materials that were touted to be more tissue-like.
The idea really came when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put out this call for a next generation condom that would have a more skin-like sensation or preserve sensation. I took that concept back to the team and at first they laughed at me. But then we started to say, our materials, although we haven't' been trying to look at those conditions, are actually quite like latex .
It was a lightning bolt of inspiration?
You see Bill Gates wanting safer sex in these click-bait articles, you know, so obviously I'm going to look at it. And if I hadn't seen that link… yeah, it was just, hey, let's try it .
When did you go from let's explore this to, yeah, we've got a condom on our hands?
I should clarify: we don't have condoms yet. We're still in the materials evaluation stage.
We've seen materials in our arsenal that sort of have the properties of latex. We came up with a plan for how to test them. This is what we proposed to the Foundation, and what we got our grant money for: Basically, there are hundreds of these variations to play around with. We need some that adhere to some specific mechanical and biological properties. It's got to be stretchy and tough and obviously not break, and we have to be able to prevent against the transfer of bacteria, viruses, and sperm.
There are standards to test condoms around the world, and we just used those same standards to try our new materials. By narrowing down the field, we found a few formulations that really, really work.
Let's talk about these hydrogels you settled on. What can they do?
I say hydrogels and people gloss over. You may be wearing a type of hydrogel right now—you're wearing a contact lens? Well that's very similar to some of the materials we're looking at.
Typically hydrogels are very brittle. These tough hydrogels are much tougher. You can stretch them, pull them, there are some videos online where you can drive trucks over some of these materials. They have the properties a bit like wet plastic, but they feel and act more like real skin.
The advantage of them is that hydrogels have been used for decades to do things like deliver drugs or help to regrow cells. What we're thinking we can do is invent lubrication inside the condom instead of putting a lubricant on the outside, which is necessary in latex. What if we can put it inside the condom and have it release when you need it? In the same way, you might be able to put drugs in them. Viagra is a good example. There are already condoms that are coated in Viagra, but to help with delivery. And not only those agents but things to fight against STIs—instead of putting a coating on, you could put them inside the condom itself. And with latex, if you put a glove on, you're always going to feel a glove, no matter what. But when you put these on, they're hardly perceptible. It's kind of amazing. And you wouldn't have latex allergies. They're perfectly clear so it might be a visual benefit. All of these things.
Related: Like sex? Watch this.
Are there any downsides? Or is this a miracle material?
I wouldn't call it a miracle material. It's definitely very new.
I think the biggest downside is that this class of hydrogels has only been around for the last ten years or so. When you're talking about attempting to disrupt a whole industry based on latex, the limitation is that they're not known, there's not the supply chain there to make them as cost effective as they could be down the line. And right now we're not exactly sure—we're growing more confident every day that the research is showing that they could be applicable materials—but we can't be sure right now.
I think if you make something that feels like it's not there and delivers Viagra and lube mix-sex, you just might stand a chance of finding a market share, though.
Absolutely. We're also exploring, what is feel. There's a lot about the perception that condoms limit sensation that's not actually about the material itself, but about having to put it on, or visual cues, or things like that. So some of these things about condoms not feeling good may not be able to be overcome with just a material change. But if we can make them feel better, we certainly have an idea we can revolutionize with.
If you're working with a new material, couldn't you change the form of condoms? Like the liquid Band-Aid of condoms or something like that?
There was a spray-on condom at one point. But there were a whole bunch of issues with those. I think with the spray-on condom the issue was that nobody wanted to put their member in the box, where you couldn't see what was going on.
Given the existence of glory holes, I'm surprised that would hold people back.
Well, I mean they say, we're going to spray your member with some kind of crazy thing …
I don't know if we're going to change [the form] that much. But the material can be used in so many different ways. We could print these materials. It's very flexible in its ability to be formed and molded and make these different structures. And potentially there's someone out there with this crazy idea, wow, I'm going to reinvent the condom in a whole new way . This material could still be used for that.
What are your thoughts on the other new condoms that the Gates Foundation is funding?
There's been a bit of press about graphene condoms. I'm a founder of a grapheme start-up company. I know about grapheme, so there's an interesting concept there.
A lot of the work I've seen is based more on different additives for enhancing sensation or Viagra substitutes and whatnot. Things that would encourage people to use them more. And even some designs that would make the application of them easier. There's an Origami Condom where it goes on in a second and it's got these ridges on it.
When the foundation put out the grant, there were about 1,700 applicants. Everyone's interested in new condom solutions because there's obviously a need. And if there are others that work on new compounds that give new sensations or new designs we may be able to take advantage of what they're doing but use a new material and maybe advance some of their work if our materials are more skin-like and more pleasurable.
What's your timeline? When do you hope to see these things on the shelves?
We've spoken with several major manufacturers. This would be around three to five years. That's a very early estimate.
The main considerations are obviously regulation and making sure that you're going through the right trials or whatever's necessary in the countries that you're going into to prove that you're effective, so just like latex condoms you have some credibility and assurance that they're going to work. Those are the real hold-ups for any new technology.
While we wait for this project to come to fruition, you're now a condom expert. What's your favorite? What should we be using until your condoms hit the shelves?
Have you ever heard of polyisoprene? These are the new [thin] condoms. Skyn is one of the brands. I can say I've tried them and, yeah, they're pretty good. I don't think I'd say that I have a favorite, but that's definitely one of the ones that I've tried and the polyisoprene seems to feel a bit better.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.