Innovation

The self-lubricating skin-like condom that has piqued the interest of Bill Gates

Kye White /

A team of researchers from the University of Wollongong are developing a next generation condom that “looks, feels and acts” like real tissue, and they have the support of Bill and Melinda Gates to do it.

They’re working to develop a replacement for latex condoms using materials called tough hydrogels.

Dr Robert Gorkin and the team pitched the idea unsuccessfully to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, which is offered twice yearly, and gives $100,000 grants to successful applicants, before being accepted the second time around.

It’s hoped that the new condom will help combat a variety of problems in the developing world, as well as its other obvious benefits.

By making this next generation condom more appealing than its latex counterpart, the hope is that one day it might help increase safe sex rates in the developing world, and in doing so, reduce the significant social, economic and environmental problems that stem from the lack of birth control and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, in particular AIDS.

Gorkin says hydrogels have been used in contact lenses, so they’ve been successful on “sensitive areas” before.

In addition to feeling more like skin than latex does, the other advantage of hydrogels is they also have the potential to self-lubricate or provide topical drug delivery.

“We may be able to put lubrication into the condom itself, instead of on it,’’ he says.

Just 52 grants to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were funded from 1700 applicants worldwide and successful projects have the opportunity to receive follow up funding of up to $US1 million.

It’s a tough application process, with applicants only having two pages to convince the foundation their idea is worthy and can make no mention of their credentials.

Gorkin says a big part of the reason their pitch succeeded the second time was because of his experience with University of Wollongong startup accelerator iAccelerate, where he was able to hone his pitching skill.

“We went back and did a little investigation and thought what do they really want, what’s they’re motivation?” Gorkin says.

“They’re putting out these calls so they can help the health and wellbeing of people in developing countries.

“We actually took out some of the science and thought about how we are going to craft it to make an impact.”

Gorkin says the team is looking into other ways to increase condom usage in the developing world.

“It’s really about challenging our own perceptions, particularly when developing new technologies to be deployed in places like sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia,” he says.

“We are looking to have a dialogue with people in those areas to look at social and cultural aspects for design that could be incorporated into eventual prototypes and products.

“We are also looking at manufacturing, regulation, distribution and other considerations, which will be critical for success in the regions.”

The researchers are yet to develop a prototype and are still in the process of determining whether or not tough hydrogels will be an acceptable replacement for latex.

“There’s a reason why latex is so successful: it can do what needs to be done in a safe manner,” he says.

“Mimicking that is the challenge.”

This story first appeared on StartupSmart.

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Kye White

Kye began his career at a Fairfax daily on the North-West Coast of Tasmania. He has since taken his belongings, and keen interest in technology, to Melbourne. He has a bachelor of Arts majoring in Political Science from the University of Tasmania and a Graduate Diploma in Journalism from RMIT University.

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