SEATTLE—The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's offer to provide a grant to anyone who creates a better condom is easy to write off as a joke. It's not, and plenty of people believe creating a better condom is possible.
Since the modern rubber condom was created more than a century ago, the search has continued to fuse the protection a condom offers with the feeling of having nothing there at all. The goal has been to increase condom use on a consistent base to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
"If I was asked the question, 'Do you really think there is something better out there?', my answer is there is no doubt there is," said Bill Howe, vice president of Dip Tech Systems, a manufacturer of industrial and medical dipping equipment. "It's a matter of time and resources."
The Gates foundation agrees.
"The primary improvement has been the use of latex as the primary material and quality control measures which allow for quality testing of each individual condom," the foundation stated on its website. "Material science and our understanding of neurobiology has undergone revolutionary transformation in the last decade, yet that knowledge has not been applied to improve the product attributes of one of the most ubiquitous and potentially underutilized products on earth."
That doesn't mean others haven't introduced new ideas to the marketplace.
Howe—who said he's worked in the latex industry longer than he likes to admit—has seen his share of products and ideas over time. "We have had some entrepreneurs that will call us, and then what we do is help people develop a process around a new prophylactic idea," he said.
About 20 years ago, he said a man approached him with a product, called Pleasure Plus, that had a real out-of-the box look. Howe said the product addressed one of the main complaints about condoms—that they dull the pleasure.
"Interestingly enough, I can't say (the product) took off in the industry, even though it was a pretty compelling idea," he said.
As the Gates Foundation looks for what is next, companies producing condoms also are investigating.
"The main players in the industry are constantly working on the better version," Howe said. "Most of the time, I believe that involves different materials."
Howe isn't sure how to define a new and improved condom, but believes there could be a breakthrough in the industry in the next five to 10 years. He said making a better condom can be divided into four parts: creating a thinner condom that offers full protection; the shape; the materials; and moving away from only a male condom.
"I know that the search in new materials is on-going," he said. "If they can find something on the compound side that will make it such that the physical properties will further optimize when you make the product thinner."
As some consider new materials, he said the existing design can be improved as well. "I do believe the technology and resources exist to improve," he said.
The next generation condom will have to overcome the stigma that condoms dull the pleasure or are ill-fitted. Researchers also must be mindful that utilizing a condom doesn't interrupt the sexual experience.
"You don't want to crush the moment," Howe said. "It's one of those things, I think, that's the key to the success of it, to make sure that moment is not compromised."
The Center for Disease Control found that from 2006 to 2010, unmarried men between the ages 15-44 reported not using a condom 68 percent of the time in the four weeks prior to their interview. Women in the same age range reported their partners not using a condom 71 percent of the time, while 7.1 percent of women said a condom was used some of the time. However, the CDC reported that 99.1 percent of women surveyed from 2006-10 reporting using some sort of contraception during their lifetime.
While the battle in the U.S. might be getting condoms to be used consistently, in other parts of the world, the challenge is to get people to use them at all.