When you hear the term “next-generation condom”, beef tendon probably isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind.
But a condom made from the cow part is one of the 11 ideas to win $100,000 from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in their reinvent-the-condom competition.
Another winning proposal uses a material that shrinks when it warms up on the body so it provides a perfect fit. Yet another team combined opening the condom package with application — in a single quick motion — so there’s no more fumbling in the dark.
Back in March, the Gates Foundation challenged scientists to design a condom that men or women would actually want to use. The goal was to develop “new condoms that significantly preserve or enhance pleasure,” the foundation’s website says.
The motivation is simple. The Gates Foundation is one of the biggest supporters of global health (and a funder of NPR). It figures that if more couples use condoms, they’re less likely to transmit viruses like HIV or end up with unwanted pregnancies.
The foundation received more than 500 entries for the condom challenge. It announced the 11 winning proposals on Wednesday.
One things for certain: For the next-generation condom, it’s all about being thin and strong.
Studies have found that most men prefer a condom that they don’t notice, says chemical engineer Mark McGlothlin of Apex Medical Technologies, Inc. in San Diego. But it still needs to be tough enough so it doesn’t break or allow pathogens to pass through.
"Current condoms always have a plastic feeling," McGlothlin tells Shots. "We wanted to make a condom you don’t feel when you have intercourse."
To do that, McGlothlin has invented a condom made out of the same material in animal tendons and ligaments: long fibers of protein, called collagen.
"We take raw collagen from beef tendons or fish scraps and gingerly separate out the fibers," he says. "We form it into a condom … and when it dries down, it looks like sausage casing."
The result, he says, is a material that almost feels like wet skin. “It’s a totally different sensation than a latex condom. It’s like rubbing your hand on a real leather car seat versus one with fake leather. The fake fabric — and the latex — just feels bad.”
Top photo: One experimental condom has tabs on the side so it can slip on like a sock. (Courtesy of Courtesy of California Family Health Council)
Bottom photo: The starting material for this condom comes from beef tendons. The result is a fabric that’s soft and moist, like skin. (Courtesy of California Family Health Council)