A Natural Feeling: Gates and the Ongoing Search for a Better Condom

There seems to be one universal truth when it comes to condoms—men don’t particularly like wearing them. Even as condoms have become thinner and better, this seemingly universal truth has endured. What’s more, according to a U.S. study in the Journal of Sex Research, over 80 percent of men surveyed admitted to using some lame excuse to avoid using one.

We all know the possible repercussions of failing to use a condom during sex; now imagine those repercussions in countries where HIV/AIDS rates are among the highest in the world. But even throwing in the very real possibility of contracting HIV doesn’t seem to improve condom usage rates as much as you would think. One of the most common reasons that men offer regarding why they don’t like to use condoms is how they feel. They don’t feel natural. That could have something to do with the fact that they aren’t natural.  

Related: Gates Foundation: Grants for Global Health

The Gates Foundation has been thinking about condoms for many years, in different ways. It's funded work to promote condom use, and projects to develop better male and female condoms. Lately, it's backed some interesting research on materials that enhance sensitivity—and address the most common complaint about condoms.

Consider, for example, three grants of $100,000 now ongoing to Origami Healthcare Products, UBIQ World and HealthRock LLC.

The grants were awarded—not out of the foundation’s Family Planning program, but rather its Discovery and Translational Sciences grantmaking program. 

UbIQ World is using its Gates money to engineer the condom surface to be more like human skin and increase sensation through the use of nanofabrication technology.

HealthRock is putting the control of condom use in women’s hands by testing its self-inflating female condom design, which is constructed of near-silent polyurethane. HealthRock claims that this product mimics the shape of the female anatomy and also provides extra stimulation for both partners during use.

Origami is putting its Gates grant to work by testing its internal silicone condom, also designed to mimic human tissue. Origami’s product is intended to be safe for both vaginal and anal intercourse.

These grants mark the first time each of the organizations received funding from Gates. Looking through its condom-related funding, one-time grants seem to the status quo, as there are few repeat players on Gates’ condom related funding list.

Gates has been in the condom game since 2002, and has since awarded just over $20 million to a variety of condom-related programs. Most of its earlier funded programs had to do with the promotion of both male and female condom use, and grants were awarded out of either its HIV or Family Planning programs.

In 2013, it looks like Gates shifted its focus a bit to zero in on developing products that are as close to natural feeling as possible. It will be interesting to see how much fruit this effort bears, and how much that might actually change attitudes about condoms.