Bill Gates: computer genius, incredible philanthropist...condom afficionado? Indeed, the man who brought you MS-DOS is now looking to create a revolution in an entirely new industry -- and one in dire need of innovation.
Gates is working from two basic truths: condoms massively reduce the spread of STDs and unwanted pregnancies wherever they're introduced, but, condoms aren't as widely used as they should be, because...frankly, they kinda suck.
To try and inspire some innovation in a technology that hasn't changed much in about 70 years, the Gates Foundation is backing 11 valid proposals (from a field of a whopping 812) with about £65,000 each in seed funding, with a further £650,000 to come if it all turns out well. Here are the neatest solutions to help you get down and dirty.
The One Made From Cow Bits
Winning the certain prize for 'most outside-the-box' is the proposal from Apex Medical Technologies in San Diego, whose "Ultra-Sensitive Reconstituted Collagen Condom" weaves bits of leftover beef tendon into the condom, enhancing strength, heat transfer and yuckiness factor no end.
In fairness, the tendon is 'broken down' so that any kind of smell or texture is reduced -- but still, would you be happy getting all close and personal with a bit of reconstituted cow?
The Ones Made From Graphene
Graphene: the most hyped super-material, slated to take us to space, revolutionise energy, and, erm, help you perform in the bedroom? That's the theory behind research being carried out by Aravind Vijayaraghavan in our very own sunny Manchester: Dr Vijayaraghavan wants to mix graphene with a synthetic base to produce a super-strong, super-thin condom: the hope being that if the technology can be made more reliable and get in the way a little less, it'll see a little more action.
A second team, from India's HLL Lifecare, is looking to go one step further: once a graphene-synthetic hybrid is made, the surface of the graphene layer can be coated with spermicides and other virus-killing products; not a new idea, but at the moment, the agents only have the smooth latex to cling to. On a microscopic level, graphene provides far more surface area, so any treatment is likely to be far longer-lasting.
The Clingfilm Condom
Another alternative to the latex condom is one made of polyethylene, the same non-stretchy plastic used in the sort of hygenic gloves you'd find in Subway. Since it 'clings' rather than 'squeezes' as a conventional condom would, it's allegedly easier to put on in the dark, thanks to no need to unroll, and two pull tabs. (You can see a slightly NSFW illustration here.)
Other advantages are that the condom can be thinner, it's more environmentally stable, and provokes fewer allergic reactions. (Because nothing ruins a bit of night-time action like mild anaphylactic shock.)
The 'Wants-to-Be-a-Band-Aid' One
Winning the prize for best name is undoubtedly the 'Rapidom', the brainchild of South Africa's Kimbranox. Rather than messing with the material of the condom, this innovation is meant to help with that awkward ten seconds of fumbling -- the package splits in half, letting you open the wrapper and slide it on in one smooth, stylish motion. (That's the idea, anyway -- the result may be more of an extravagant but doomed flourish, followed by a solid minute of swearing.)
The Mucous One
Patrick Kiser, of Northwestern University, is less concerned with application, but is all about the feels. Using a yet-to-be announced combination of polymers, his team aims to mimic the feeling of the body's natural mucosal tissue, and as such make it feel like there's nothing in the way when you're bumping uglies.
The Nano-Engineered Slippery One
Another identified weakness of current condoms is the lubricant: as it stands, lubricants are normally oil-based, which gives a particularly slimy feel, and they don't always stay on for quite as long as you'd like. That's not just a problem for feel -- dryness causes friction, friction causes tears, and tears cause unwanted teenage pregnancies.
A team from Boston University is going after this problem with nano-technology: specifically, a hydrogel, applied to condom, that creates long-lasting lubrication, with a slightly better feel to boot.
The Self-Tightening One
A group from Cambridge Design Partnership, a British technology consultancy, is looking into the problem of keeping things in place once you've got underway. Their solution? An anisotropic material that responds differently to forces in different axes -- basically, it contracts more easily around things than along them, meaning it'll slowly tighten over the course of a session, keeping everything where it should be.
Still, the marketing team will probably have fun trying to convince gents to wear a condom described as 'self-tightening'.