In March 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenged the world to reinvent the condom — a device that's been around for centuries yet has seen minimal technological improvement in the past 50 years.
The goal: to create a "next-generation condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use," according to the foundation's Global Grand Challenges website. The most promising designers would score $100,000 in seed funding, plus a chance at an additional $1 million to further finance their projects.
It was the answer many people had been waiting for. For folks with penises, and their partners, latex is limiting and unpleasant. It reduces sensation; smells, tastes and looks unappealing; is tough to apply; and can cause allergic reactions. Only a small fraction of the world's population regularly uses them.
Twice the Gates Foundation announced a handful of winning grant recipients, all with exciting new ideas. One design incorporated a nifty applicator to help you get the condom on quickly and painlessly. Another would cling to your penis like Saran Wrap. Yet another would contain graphene, an ultra-strong material that could rule out breakage. Many people, long fed up with the limitations and unpleasantness of latex, rejoiced at the news.
And so began the waiting period to finally put those next-gen condoms into action.
We're still waiting. After the initial thrill of receiving the grant, some recipients learned that getting a new, non-latex condom through FDA trials and eventually to market is an arduous process. It requires many years and many millions of dollars — barriers so high, it's no wonder our drug store aisles are still dominated by the same prophylactics.
Grant recipient Mark McGlothlin, president of Apex Medical Technologies, seemed almost amused when Mic asked him for updates on his condom's production process. There were no updates, he said.
Apex's grant-winning vision was dubbed the "Ultra-Sensitive Reconstituted Collagen Condom." Made from collagen found in bovine tendons, it was designed to replicate the feeling of your partner's actual skin. Described by McGlothlin as a new-and-improved take on traditional lambskin condoms, the design purportedly has no odor or taste. "We made a better version of what mother nature made," he said.
His company developed a successful prototype, McGlothlin said, but can't move forward with getting it to market unless someone funds it in a "very major sort of way" — more money than the Gates Foundation can provide, unfortunately, even if McGlothlin receives the additional $1 million in funding.
"It probably is more than a million dollars just to get through FDA approval," McGlothlin said. "It's a brutal process."
McGlothin assured Mic he is wholly grateful to the Gates Foundation. "But for all the publicity they got on the condom project," he said, $1 million "just won't get the product to market. That's the frustrating part." (The Gates Foundation could not respond to our request for comment in time.)
Condoms are not popular. Only around 5% of men worldwide are estimated to use them — despite their 98% effectiveness at preventing unwanted pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
Among U.S. women ages 15 through 44, only 10% use condoms as a form of contraception, according to a recent CDC report. That's fewer than the number of women who prevent unwanted pregnancies via the pill (17%) and female sterilization (also 17%). And of all American adolescents who engaged in sexual intercourse in the past month, nearly 25% of guys and nearly 40% of women opted not to use a condom, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
And yet the demand for pregnancy prevention is enormous: In 2006, the CDC estimates that 49% of U.S. pregnancies were unintended.
That's not to mention the rampant spread of HIV across the globe. 2014 saw approximately 2 million new cases of HIV worldwide, bringing the total number of people living with HIV/AIDS to 36.9 million by the end of 2014, according to the World Health Organization. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to the majority of people living with HIV — approximately 25.8 million in 2014.
You can see why there's a push — from the Gates Foundation, the hundreds of innovators who submitted condom proposals, and others — to create condoms that are easier and more pleasurable to use.