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A 31-year-old Pune-based writer, who does not want to be named, has no use for any newfangled innovative condom design. “My husband is of a certain size that makes sex painful even after 13 years," she explains her predicament. To address the issue—which wasn’t solved even by generous application of KY Jelly, a lubricant meant to ease intercourse—they began to use the “Comfort Fit" of a leading brand and hit their sweet spot as far as this product is concerned. It helped that the condom is the couple’s preferred method of contraception (“We can check for tears, later").

So, if a super-thin condom that is made of a material that is 200 times stronger than steel, and therefore almost unbreakable, and which conducts heat as well as copper hits the market, the couple wouldn’t care, unless it is the right fit. “It’s one of those things that don’t need to be fixed, because it ain’t broken," she shrugs.

This isn’t quite the news that a certain gentleman in Thiruvananthapuram, who was awarded $100,000 (around 61 lakh) by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in November to make the next-generation condom, would like to hear. Raghupathy Lakshminarayanan, an E3-grade scientist at HLL Lifecare Ltd—India’s largest contraceptive makers—was one of 11 selected from 812 applicants because he suggested the use of graphene, the material used in pencils.

It was considered to be highly unstable in its free form till Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two scientists from The University of Manchester, UK, separated two-dimensional wafers of graphene in 2004. The duo won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts. It is considered to be the strongest material in the world, besides being a good conductor of heat. According to Lakshminarayanan, whose interest in graphene grew while he was working at the University of Manchester (before he returned to India in 2012) this material could just be the next big thing.

He’s not alone in thinking so. A team from the university’s National Graphene Institute is also among the 11 selected by the Gates Foundation. Led by Aravind Vijayaraghavan, it suggested using graphene to create a composite material for condoms.

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Raghupathy Lakshminarayanan testing the elasticity of a sample at the HLL factory

“All condoms today are made of elastomers, or elastic polymers, whereas what we propose is a new material that is a composite, a mixture of elastomers and graphene," says Vijayaraghavan in an email interview. In a similar vein, Lakshminarayanan’s tactic involves incorporating graphene into latex. “This will allow us to reduce condom thickness as well as increase heat exchange between partners," he says. The first prototype was ready last month, but there is a long way to go before its functionality is proven, says Lakshminarayanan.

If he proves, within one-and-a-half years, that the concept has merit, he can apply for phase 2 funding, in which the foundation will offer an additional $1 million over two years to take the prototype to market.

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The ‘Do the REX’ Durex commercial with actor Ranveer Singh that went on air recently

Of course pricing is only one of the issues that affect this industry. The world over condoms are seen as pleasure-killers, although they are easily the most ubiquitous form of STD and HIV/AIDS prevention. Not only do condoms result in loss of sensation during intercourse, but also potentially, in loss of erection while donning them. While new methods for delivery, promotion or educational counselling are needed to address a problem of low condom usage, the dialogue surrounding rubber itself needs to change.

This becomes significant in our country, where it’s estimated that only half the married women use contraceptive methods; three-fourths of them undergo sterilization, clearly the most preferred method. Condoms stood at a mere 5% penetration, according to the National Family Health Survey 3, conducted in 2005-06.

Paul Breur (left, holding condom) and Adnan Tunovic are behind the Wingman condom, which comes with a red plastic applicator so it can be rolled on with one hand. Photo courtesy: Wingman Condoms
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Paul Breur (left, holding condom) and Adnan Tunovic are behind the Wingman condom, which comes with a red plastic applicator so it can be rolled on with one hand. Photo courtesy: Wingman Condoms

It comes as no surprise then that condom companies are increasingly targeting youth as their primary market. Although global leader Durex only has a 4% market share of India’s 78 crore industry, Nitish Kapoor, general manager of Reckitt Benckiser India, which manufactures Durex, points out that their marketing strategy is geared towards generating a conversation about pleasurable and safe sex among Indian youth, especially among first-time condom users such as “teenagers exploring their sexuality for the first time".

“We hope to engage the youth in a discussion around the subject of sexual well-being and safe sex in India," says Kapoor. Durex India recently launched a music video featuring Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh on video sharing site YouTube. Its new website, launched in February, offers everything from a basic guide on how to use a condom, to dealing with sexual and emotional baggage in a relationship, in the form of videos and games.

To address the problem of someone walking in while one is viewing the site, there is a helpful tab called “Hide Page!" which changes the page to one with pictures of dogs and cats. “There is a dire need of having an easily accessible source of credible information which helps consumers understand this space better," he points out.

Last year, KamaSutra, a brand of condoms manufactured by JK Ansell (a 50:50 joint venture between Raymond Group and Ansell International of Australia), tied up with music channel MTV to sell Hardwear condoms that came in two variants — Big Head and Bi-Coloured. Their advertising campaign wasn’t subtle. Sexual innuendos, like “Screw it Tight", “Socket, Baby" and “Bang On", were used to mark the brand’s shift from its earlier avatar as an accessory for passion, evidenced by the 1991 advertisement featuring Pooja Bedi and Marc Robinson in a steamy shower.

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A condom vending machine at the Central Secretariat Metro station in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“In terms of what is on the shelf today, I’d say that the differences between products are fairly incremental. There are companies who are clearly thinking about sexual pleasure as a driver of consumer behaviour and there is innovation in condom development, (but) it is currently limited in my opinion," says Steven Buchsbaum, deputy director, Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Gates Foundation.

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While the foundation is keen to address this—it will issue another call for innovations in condom design this month—it is necessary to make men want to wear condoms, feels Lakshminarayanan, not because they have to, but because it will enhance their experience.

This very idea was touted by an Indian scientist in the early 1990s. Alla Venkata Krishna Reddy, a Stanley Medical College, Chennai, graduate, was conducting research on HIV when he realized that the best way to prevent the disease from spreading is to make men want to wear condoms instead of having to wear them.

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A graphic depicting the creation of a composite material that the team from the University of Manchester, led by Aravind Vijayaraghavan, is working on. Courtesy: Aravind Vijayaraghavan

Since then, design innovations have been few and far between. This year, the prestigious German iF Gold Award for product design went to Wingman Condoms, which comes with “wings" or applicators to make putting them on easy and prevent tears. This is the first time that a condom has won an award previously claimed by Porsche, Apple and Philips. Let’s hope it’s the start of a trend.

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