Condoms haven't changed all that much in 400 years. Bill and Melinda Gates want to change that. Their foundation is offering $100,000 to anyone who can come up with a "next-generation" condom.

The prize comes out of the Gates Foundation's regular Grand Challenges Explorations, which routinely taps the public to come up with new solutions to issues affecting human health. Past challenges have covered ways to optimize immunization systems, exploring nutrition for infants, protect against infection diseases and eradicate malaria.

In a non-bylined blog post about the condom challenge, the Gates Foundation called condoms "a product that is safe and effective, but underutilized." They ask two striking questions: "What if we could develop a condom that would provide all the benefit of our current versions, without the drawbacks?  Even better, what if we could develop one that was preferred to no condom?"

The blog points out that condom use is an incredibly effective way to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases, but that effectiveness is hampered by "inconsistent use." The foundation estimates that only about 750 million men use condoms every year, well below optimal usage levels. Writing bluntly, the foundation says "The undeniable, and unsurprising, truth is that most men prefer sex without a condom, while the risks related to HIV infection and complications of unplanned pregnancy are disproportionately borne by their partners."

Using the male perception that condoms reduce pleasure, the challenge asks, "Is it possible to develop a product without this stigma, or better, one that is felt to enhance pleasure? 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?"

Toward that end, the challenge says it is looking for ideas for a next-generation condom that "significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use." Ideas they suggest that they could consider funding include new materials, new shapes or designs, or the application of knowledge from other fields such as neurobiology of vascular biology. They will not consider ideas that would be too expensive for use in the developing world or proposals that do not have a clearly articulated hypothesis or plan for testing the new design.

The Gates Foundation points out that several companies are already trying to accomplish some of this, but new products in the pipeline could still be years away. They hope to jump-start the process by getting some other new ideas to market faster.

There are four other explorations in this current round of Grant Challenges, seeking new ideas for combining human and animal health, increasing the operability of "social good data," detecting and treating tropical disease and creating labor-saving strategies for women farmers.

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Bill Gates wants your help to design the condom of the future
The Gates Foundation is offering $100,000 to anyone who can design the next generation of condoms.