Tech by VICE

Where Are Our Next Generation Condoms?

Three years since the Gates Foundation handed out $100,000 each to several projects, progress has been slow, but steady.

by Meredith Rutland Bauer
Nov 28 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Domnitsky/Shutterstock

While sexual health is an important part of a person's body, the field doesn't always receive the research needed to give the world better products.

The Gates Foundation tried to solve that problem by offering awards to the best proposals for the "next generation of condom" back in 2013. The foundation funded 11 condom-related projects with $100,000 each, and chosen proposals ranged from one-size-fits-all condoms to ones that could be put on in "one motion" without interrupting intercourse.

"Quite simply, condoms save lives but new thinking is needed to ensure that men and women around the world are using them consistently and correctly to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections," the Gates Foundation said in a press release.

That was three years ago this week. So what happened to those ideas?

They're still being created. Development and Federal Drug Administration approval takes years, if not a decade, and much more money than one award can provide. But that doesn't mean these mavens of sexual health are sitting on their laurels in the meantime.

Read More: I Tried the Latest In Condom Technology and It Went Shockingly Well

Patrick Kiser of Northwestern University is working on developing a condom that acted similarly to mucosal tissue, a membrane that lines several body parts including the vagina and parts of the penis, to improve sensation.

In the meantime, he was part of a team that developed an intra-vaginal ring that acts as birth control and releases a medicine to treat HIV/AIDS. The ring, which contains the anti-retroviral drug tenofovir, has the potential to help women in the developing world avoid pregnancy and treat HIV without the daily pills that are currently on the market. It is awaiting FDA approval.

Another project funded by the Gates Foundation was a plan by Lakshminarayanan Ragupathy of HLL Lifecare Ltd. to create a condom with a graphene layer that could heat up to regular body temperature and act as a drug delivery system for STD prevention.

The condom is still under development, but Ragupathy later received a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation to continue pursuing this project once it showed some results, Vice reported earlier this year.

He later began work on a project to develop a biodegradable condom that is odorless and compatible with antiviral drugs and other contraceptives. Since latex condoms take several years to biodegrade in landfills, some consumers opt for eco-friendly condom options like natural lambskin condoms, with higher price tags.

Willem van Rensburg of Kimbranox Ltd. was awarded a Gates Foundation award for his idea to create a device that puts on a male condom in one motion without interrupting sex. The Rapidom, as the device is called, was meant to avoid all the fuss that goes into removing a condom from its wrapper and putting it on properly—which is sometimes cited by men as a reason why they don't use condoms at all.

"Manual application of condoms takes time, which can lead to incorrect positioning as it interrupts the sexual act, and current applicators require good technique," van Rensburg's proposal reads. His goal has been to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS infections that have swept across his home country of South Africa.

An early version of the applicator is available in South Africa under the name Pronto Condoms, but an Indigogo crowdfunding campaign only raised $800. The U.S. will, unfortunately, have to wait its turn.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.