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UOW researchers win Gates Foundation grant to make next generation condoms

A team of researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW) has received Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funding to help develop a Next Generation Condom that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use”.

Their team was one of only 52 grants funded worldwide, out of more than 1,700 applications for the Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, which covers five diverse project areas ranging from agriculture to healthcare. Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

To assist countries where significant social, economic and environmental problems stem from lack of birth control and the spread of STDs, the UOW team will work to develop a replacement for latex condoms using new materials called tough hydrogels.

The advantage of hydrogels is that they can be tailored to feel, look and act more like natural tissue and can engineered to deliver functionality such as self-lubrication, topical drug delivery, and biodegradability. Hydrogels are also very safe being found in numerous familiar applications from contact lenses to food products. This work continues to push the boundaries of years of hydrogel development for artificial muscles and implantable bionics at UOW.


Dr Robert Gorkin leads a team that includes polymer scientist Dr Sina Naficy and molecular microbiologist Dr Jason McArthur. Their complementary expertise spans biomedical engineering, materials science, and drug delivery.

Professor Geoff Spinks, leader of UOW’s Global Challenges Initiative in Manufacturing Innovation, and Associate Professor Simon Moulton, program leader of the Bionics research program at the UOW-headquartered ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) provide research mentorship and guidance to the team. Chris Gilbey, Entrepreneur in Residence at ACES will provide commercialisation counsel.

Dr Gorkin said the team was extremely excited about the incredible opportunity. “The Bill and Melinda Gates support will enable us to explore a new application of our materials research that could improve the lives of many, and that would be incredibly difficult to fund in any other way.”

The team recognises that understanding local cultures and societies and learning how to work within them is going to be a key challenge in designing condoms that are readily adopted.

“It’s really about us challenging our own perceptions, particularly when developing new technologies to be deployed in places like sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia," Dr Gorkin said. "We are looking to have dialog 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.

“In a recent TED2014 talk Melinda Gates said ‘the delivery is every bit as important as the science’. We totally agree – the challenge must be tackled holistically – design driven innovation will be imperative for the team”.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is one the most recognised philanthropic organisations operating in the world today. The award was funded under the Round 12 Grand Challenges Explorations grants, which foster innovation in global health research.

After applying the grant, Dr Gorkin honed the preliminary idea through the training received the UOW Pitch 2013 competition, in which he was the co-winner of the staff category.

UOW Pitch 2014 is now open for applications to again promote entrepreneurialism and the commercialisation of ideas, inventions and research outcomes from UOW students and staff.

Note to media: A media resource pack including videos, photos, team biographies and a fact sheet are available for download here.

Media contact: Grant Reynolds, UOW Media & PR Officer on +61 417 010 350 or grantr@uow.edu.au. All enquiries about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or Grand Challenges should be directed to GCMedia@gatesfoundation.org.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 950 people in more than 55 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organisation. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

Last reviewed: 4 June, 2014

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+61 2 4221 4227 | media@uow.edu.au 

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