Gates Foundation wants to make safe sex more fun

Happy Condoms
Flickr, bnilsen

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thinks safe sex isn’t as much fun as it should be.

At least, that seems to be the gist of one request for a grant application from the world’s largest philanthropy as part of its Grand Challenges Explorations program. One of the goals for this round is to develop a better condom – and by better they basically mean a condom that doesn’t suck.

“It is a bit unusual,” said Stephen Ward, the program officer with the Gates Foundation administering the project.

In its request for proposals, the foundation opens with a detailed description of the global production of condoms (15 billion units per year), usage (750 million) and a ‘steadily growing market.’ When used properly, the Gates Foundation notes, condoms can protect females from pregnancy and both partners from sexually transmitted infections like HIV. They are cheap, ubiquitous and a great example of a ‘multi-purpose prevention technology.’

“The one major drawback to more universal use of male condoms is the lack of perceived incentive for consistent use.”

Yeah, they suck. They’re no fun.

“There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the field of condom manufacturing over the last hundred years,” said Ward. One of the biggest obstacles to condom use, he said, is that condoms reduce sexual pleasure. “We want to incent people to use condoms consistently.”

New developments in material science, neuroscience and vascular biology should be enough to provide some creative scientist, engineer or inventor with lots of ideas for enhancing the sexual pleasure of condoms, Ward said. The foundation isn’t looking for people to set up competition with Trojan or Durex but rather to come up with ideas that can be tested. Ward said manufacturing, marketing and distribution capacity is already in place to try out promising concepts.

“The idea here is to seed innovative ideas,” Ward said. (Yes, he said seed.)

“This came out of our work on the intersection of family health and HIV,” he explained without use of puns. “We’re always interested in tools that meet multiple needs and, in the case of condoms, the need for family planning and HIV prevention overlap. If we can improve on an intervention that significantly meets both of those needs, it could be transformational.”

But we’ve seen all those ads out there for pleasure-enhancing condoms and lubricants already. Is this really something the Gates Foundation needs to fund?

“We know empirically that those don’t work as claimed,” Ward said. (Given his ‘seeding,’ comment I decided not to ask about his empirical research.) “We don’t really know what we’re looking for, but we welcome new ideas.”

And like the axiom about pornography, maybe they’ll just know it when they see it.

Initial grants are for $100,000 and the bidding is open until May 7.  Since its launch in 2008, the Grand Challenges Explorations initiative has funded more than 800 grants in 52 countries. The program welcomes proposals from a broad spectrum of contributors, and encourages cross-discipline approaches.

Other topics for Grand Challenges Explorations Round 11:

Increasing interoperability of social good data (No, I don’t know what that means either…)

One Health: Bringing together human and animal health for new solutions

Labor saving strategies and innovations for women smallholder farmers

New approaches for detection, treatment and control of selected neglected tropical disease



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Editor Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.