Gates’ condom investment a model for tech innovation

Bill Gates: investor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, good-sex advocate? That’s right, one of the world’s most famous computer geeks is offering a $100,000 grant to anyone who can successfully develop the “next generation of condoms” to help curb unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STIs around the world.

People have been complaining about the lack of pleasure and intimacy that comes with wearing a condom probably since its first recorded use in 1350 B.C.E. in Egypt. The cost of choosing protection over maximized gratification in the heat of the moment has left many men willing to take their chances. According to the 2012 UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report, approximately 34 million people in the world are living with HIV, and half of them don’t even know they have it. This means they currently have no symptoms, or have not identified their symptoms as dangerous, assuming that they are healthy enough to have unsafe sex and subsequently spread the disease to others. According to the CDC, in 2011 48% of births in the U.S. were unintended, and that number is higher in developing areas that lack easy access to sources of birth control.

Despite the fact that condoms are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy when used properly and is considered one of the best ways to stop the spread of HIV, less than one in seven humans worldwide use a condom. 15 billion condoms are produced every year and used by approximately 750 million men on earth. These numbers sound impressive, but if you were to evenly divide the world’s supply of condoms among the men who use them, each man would only have 20 condoms to work with for the whole year. Some of us can blow through 20 condoms over Spring Break (pun intended)..Simply put, the demand for condoms is just not high enough; even those willing to wear one aren’t wearing them often enough for suppliers to produce more.

Bill Gates attributes the lack of condom use not only to its interference with pleasure but also to the fact that the technology is outdated and in need of a makeover, so to speak. There have not been any major improvements to the condom in the past 50 years, which is what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is hoping to change. To win the grant, the recipient must create a condom that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use.” This could be done through the development of new and effective materials for condoms, different designs for easier and more appealing use, or both.

Another key feature highlighted by the Foundation is the condom’s ability to “address and overcome cultural barriers.” In some cultures, condom use is seen as an indication that the man is infected with HIV/AIDS, so many women won’t sleep with men who use them. Designing a condom that combats such notions will be no easy feat, but the startup grant of $100,000 could lead to $1 million in further funding from the Foundation if the “new generation of condoms” is successful in its aims.

Though Gates would not have been my first guess of who would encourage such innovation, I am relieved he is doing so. With recent media coverage on the issue of whether birth control should even be allowed, I have been concerned that the direction of contraception use was taking a turn for the worst and heading back in time. Thankfully, Bill Gates is alleviating the risk that we are heading down that road, and is monetarily backing up the cause. I feel that it is important to improve the already effective forms of birth control we have while understanding the reality that people will have sex—whether a condom is present or not. Hopefully the combination of Bill Gates’ name recognition, the financial reward, and society’s infatuation with all things sexual will entice innovators to solve some of the world’s largest problems in a very creative way.


—Angela Della Croce ‘15 is an Economics major.

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