Gates Offers Grant for Next Condom
PHOTO: Bill Gates

Bill Gates' latest project gives a whole new meaning to the old Microsoft slogan, "Your potential. Our Passion."

The Microsoft founder and its former CEO is getting out of software and into, er, hardware.

Gates will give a $100,000 grant to whoever can invent the "next generation condom" through The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health. The estimated 80 grant recipients can then apply for a follow-up grant worth up to $1 million.

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"Is it possible to develop a product without this stigma, or better, one that is felt to enhance pleasure?" the Grand Challenge prompt asks. "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 [sexually transmitted infections]?"

The challenge prompt notes that condoms are effective at preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections like HIV, but their design hasn't changed in centuries and people just don't want to use them. As such, Gates is asking inventors to create something that does the job, but increases condom desirability by preserving sensation and enhancing user experience.

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Between 69 and 80 percent of teens in the United States use condoms, but middle-aged adults aren't so careful because they mistakenly think they aren't at risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections, said Sheryl Kingsberg, who specializes in behavioral medicine at University Hospitals' department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Cleveland.

Even when a condom is being used, however, it's not always used the right way because it isn't intuitive, Kingsberg said.

The University of Washington and a company called Origami are already working on ways to build a better condom, according to the foundation's blog. The university is working on a fabric with tiny fibers that can physically block sperm and then dissolve within a few minutes or a few days.

Origami has three designs for rippled, folding condoms designed to enhance pleasure and be put on quickly.

Gates' call for condom inventors is a "wonderful idea" and raises awareness, but it only solves half the problem, Kingsberg said. The other half will be encouraging people to use condoms with better education.

"There are many ways in which the current generation of condom can fail," she said. "Maybe this is Windows Vista version. We can certainly get to Windows 7, 8 and 9, but we need to encourage people to use it."

The deadline for proposal submissions is May 7. Winners will be notified in November.

(Image Credit: Grott, Vegard/AFP/Getty Images)

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