Commercializing Nanotechnology

Last week, we looked at the science of nanotechnology -- what it is, where it came from, and where it's going (to the best that we can guess). Today, we'll tackle its commercial opportunities. We'll give you an overview of the three "industries" -- nanomaterials, nanobiotechnology, and nanoelectronics -- that will most use the technology, and some of the companies poised to benefit from the emerging science.

The recent spike in prices of all things supposedly nano requires that we all closely scrutinize the companies in this nascent technology. There are monstrous dragons in this nano space, and careful, thoughtful research is required.

Nanomaterials
Nanomaterials is a broad term used to describe the "nanocomponents" used to make, or be included as part of, a finished product. For our purposes here, the term nanomaterials includes carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, nano-oxides, nanocrystals, and nanopowders, among others.

The market for nanomaterials is forecasted to grow by 30.6% per annum for the next five years, but the real driver of growth will be carbon nanotubes and fullerenes with an annual growth forecast of 173%.

However, the commercial production of nanotubes and fullerenes is still at an embryonic stage. A few pilot factories have been built to manufacture them, but they cannot keep up with the increasing demand from R&D departments in academia and industry eager to explore commercial applications for their products. One private U.S. company, Carbon Nanotechnologies, and two Japanese industrial giants, Matsushita and Matsui, are at the forefront of developing production processes that promise to bring the price per ton of nanotubes and fullerenes down to a commercially viable proposition.

The production for other nanomaterials is slightly more advanced. For example, Nanocor, the nanotech division of AMCOL International (NYSE: ACO  ) , has been commercially producing nanocomposite clays for supply to the worldwide plastics industry since 1998. The inclusion of nano-oxides, nanopowders, or nanocrystals helps improve dispersion and reduces abrasion in a wide variety of present-day applications in paints, polishes, waxes, creams, and lotions.

Nanophase Technologies (Nasdaq: NANX  ) is another established company with sales and revenues from nanomaterials. The company sells its proprietary nanocrystalline powders to BASFAG (NYSE: BF  ) for its sunscreen products and to the U.S. Navy for painting its ships.

Nanobiotechnology
In biotechnology, the ability to work at the nano level promises to provide the means to precisely locate diseases and precisely deliver drugs to their necessary targets. The two fields that promise to be revolutionized are drug delivery and drug discovery.

As with nanomaterials, however, present-day commercial applications are somewhat more basic and, again, what we detail below is not exhaustive.

In drug delivery, Novavax (Nasdaq: NVAX  ) has been working for nine years on its proprietary micellar nanoparticle drug-delivery platform, a topical emulsion of oil, water, and lipids capable of being absorbed through the skin. In Oct. 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved its Estrasorb for prevention of hot flashes in menopausal women. Novavax has partnered with King Pharmaceuticals (NYSE: KG  ) , attacking a $1.6 billion estrogen-therapy market.

American Pharmaceutical Partners (Nasdaq: APPX  ) has received fast-track status for its novel nanoparticle-based drug, Abraxane, on the back of favorable phase 3 results for use in treating metastatic breast cancer when compared to the current treatment of Taxol, produced by Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) . Taxol sales in 2003 were $9 billion for a variety of treatments.

Skyepharma (Nasdaq: SKYE  ) estimates that 40% of drug candidates are abandoned at an early stage due to the body's inability to absorb the drug. The company's nanoparticulate drug-delivery technology promises to remove a lot of these barriers, open up new opportunities, and widen the market for some current drugs on the market.

Other companies working on nanoparticulate drug delivery are Elan Drug Delivery, part of Elan Corp. (NYSE: ELN  ) , Eiffel Technologies in Australia, and Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY  ) courtesy of Applied Molecular Evolution, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Eli Lilly after their recent merger. There are a host of private companies also working in this field.

Drug discovery has already been revolutionized with the introduction of microarrays and lab-on-a-chip technology. Where once it took the effort of a single chemist to view anything from one to 12 gene variations at a time, microarrays can now view thousands in the same time frame. That has produced an industry worth several hundred million dollars. Now, nanoarrays promise to exponentially increase even the volume of microarrays by working at a level far smaller than conventional microarrays.

Some of the leading companies in this field are Affymetrix (Nasdaq: AFFX  ) , Agilent Technologies (NYSE: A  ) , Cepheid (Nasdaq: CPHD  ) , and Nanogen (Nasdaq: NGEN  ) . Nanogen recently saw a huge jump in its share price after being awarded a patent for a unique nanofabrication technique.

Other companies involved in nano drug discovery are Qiagen (Nasdaq: QGENF  ) , BioSource International (Nasdaq: BIOI  ) , and Matsushita (NYSE: MC  ) , which is embarking on a five-year program to be the first to develop a nano bio chip. It faces competition from a private U.S. company, Bioforce Nanosciences, which is currently looking to raise $10 million to $15 million in financing and hopes to do so backed up with an IP lock on nanoarray chip design.

In another area of drug discovery, Advanced Magnetics (AMEX: AVM  ) is working on receiving final FDA approval for Combidex, an MRI agent that will aid in diagnosing cancerous lymph nodes versus nodes that are simply inflamed or enlarged.

Nanoelectronics
Working at smaller and smaller levels equates in electronics to more power, more speed, and more applications.

In semiconductors, Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) recently announced the launch of the Prescott chip, the first true nanochip operating at 90 nm and promising 4-gigahertz processing speed (current Pentium 4s work at 130 nm and deliver 2-gigahertz speed). Both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) already promise 65 nm chips (and processing speeds of 1-terahertz) by 2007.

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) ,Toshiba , Samsung, and Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) are all working on chip designs for sub-100 nm chips. IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , with reportedly 700 nanotech-related patents, is working on millipede data storage as well as, ultimately, the molecular computer.

Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) and Silicon Storage Technology (Nasdaq: SSTI  ) are developing what they call superflash memory chips working at the 65 nm level. Even that work, as cutting edge as it is, could be superceded by the advent of Magnetic RAM (MRAM) or even FeRAM. In MRAM, NVE Corp. (Nasdaq: NVEC  ) promises a technological leap with its proprietary technology of spintronics. IBM is also trying to bring this breakthrough to market. MRAM promises the much-awaited ability to switch on your computer as you do your TV and receive immediate pictures.

The next generation of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is already entering the marketplace with organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) being featured in digital cameras being sold by Eastman Kodak (NYSE: EK  ) . The self-titled world leader in OLED technology is Universal Display Corp. (Nasdaq: PANL  ) . OLEDs promise to deliver the ubiquitous "anywhere, anytime" TV screens of Minority Report fame.

Whether it is in materials, biotechnology, or electronics, the ability to see and manipulate nanosized "products" depends on the tools of atomic-force microscopes and advanced photolithography. The companies at the forefront supplying all the above industries include Veeco Instruments (Nasdaq: VECO  ) , Keithley Instruments (NYSE: KEI  ) , FEI (Nasdaq: FEIC  ) , Ultratech (Nasdaq: UTEK  ) , and Nanoinstruments, a division of MTS Systems (Nasdaq: MTSC  ) .

Summary
In any revolutionary industry -- from trains, planes, and automobiles, and from the telegraph to the Internet -- there has always been a classic investment cycle of initial boom, followed by bust, followed by the real money being made by those left standing. It is our view that we are entering the initial boom period for nanotechnology. We would go further and say nanotechnology is currently at the point that the Internet pre-boom was at circa 1992-93. Our goal is to take the hype out of this subject and find the companies that will be left standing in the nanoworld. There may be some from those companies we have presented above, and/or they may come from the companies yet to become public.

The subject of nanotechnology is vast, the potential is immense, and its study is a wonderful endeavor to embark upon. We cannot possibly do justice to it in one or two articles, but now is the time to do the homework and become informed investors.

Now What?
Join the give and take on theNanotechnologydiscussion board. Only on Fool.com. And if you're the type of investor who likes searching for the next "big thing" in a world of small caps,try a free trial to Tom Gardner's Motley Fool Hidden Gems.

Wherrett and Yelovich are better known as Caesium and Jat4 on The Motley Fool discussion boards. They welcome your input via email.Wherrett owns shares of Nanophase, but Yelovich doesn't own any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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