One long night in the late '90s, Coconut Grove native Robert "Beau" Thompson was "absolutely hammered" and about to get very lucky with the beautiful daughter of an oil tycoon. In the darkness Thompson fumbled for a condom, but he couldn't tell which side was up. Forced to resign himself to a window to be guided by the glow of a streetlight, Thompson had an epiphany: "There has to be a better way."
After the incident, Thompson, now in his late 40s and a master carpenter by trade, spent years developing a better condom, one that was so easy to put on that even someone drunk and in the dark couldn't mess it up.
Eventually he came up with a new design, incorporating handle-like tabs on each side of the rubber, and in 2005 founded Grove Medical LLC to produce the brand, called Sensis. He registered a patent for "tactile orientation" condoms, referring to the condoms' apply-by-feel innovation, and spent countless hours tinkering with equipment to devise a way to mass-produce the rubbers. "Getting those little tabs in that condom is not easy," Thompson says.
By 2011 Sensis had gone big, boasting a national distribution deal with Walgreens. But the sales didn't follow. Walgreens eventually pulled out of the deal, and Thompson shut down production and returned to construction work.
But condom dreams die hard. Last year when Thompson heard of a Gates Foundation contest for condom innovation offering a $100,000 grant to finalists, he decided to enter.
Thompson didn't win the $100,000 grant, but he was shocked to see two of the designs that did: one from a South African inventor named Willem van Rensburg called Project Rapidom, and another from a developer at the California Family Health Council called Ultra Sheer "Wrapping" Condom With Superior Strength.
Both designs incorporated pull tabs — which Thompson says is a violation of his patent.
"This is unbelievable, man," he says. "Of all people, the Gates Foundation should respect patents."
The Gates Foundation did not respond to Riptide's request for comment.
Thompson says he contacted the foundation multiple times about the violation but was repeatedly ignored. He's not out for vengeance, though. In the spirit of progress and public health, he simply wants to collaborate with the grant winners.
"I'm not trying to be a jerk," he says. "I'm just really trying to say, 'Hey, let's put our heads together.' "