You've read the news articles. Everywhere you look it's nano-this and nano-that. It appears that we're on the verge of the next great revolution in technology -- and we are. The key, however, is the word "verge" -- as in "brink" as in a precipice overhanging an abyss, waiting for the unwary investor (read "speculator") to fall into it.
Right now, dozens of companies have "California or Bust" banners hitched to their wagons as they declare their intention to be the "next big thing" in nanotech. There have been announcements of quantum dots, bristled nano-centipedes, nano elevators, nano propellers, single- and multi-walled carbon nanotubes, boron nanotubes, and nanoparticle cluster bombs, to name a few breakthrough or potential breakthrough technologies that have been dug up recently. But which technologies and -- more importantly -- which companies, will prove commercially viable is anyone's guess at this point.
Fools Carl Wherrett and John Yelovich recently gave an overview of the major players and pitfalls in their two-part special, Profiting From Nanotechnology. They estimated nearly 50% of the Dow Jones Industrial Average companies either produce or are working on nano-related products. Industry stalwarts like Intel (Nasdaq), IBM (NYSE: IBM ) , Dupont (NYSE: DD ) , and General Electric (NYSE: GE ) all are big players, though its the smaller nano plays that have been taken for wild rides by speculators the past couple of years.
There may be big money to be made in investing in pure nano companies, but with nascent technologies, as with the intrepid forty-niners of old, it's difficult to tell ahead of time who'll strike the mother lode and whose mines will yield merely iron pyrites (fool's gold).
Even the so-called experts are seemingly confused. Several "nanofunds," consisting of a dozen or more nanotech-related firms have sprung up lately. One such is the Punk Ziegel Nanotechnology Index. Yet, a closer analysis of the constituent companies reveals that many of them have little or nothing to do with nanotechnology, or are years away from having nano products to offer, such as MFIC Corp. (OTC.BB: MFIC), Pharmacopeia Inc. (Nasdaq: PCOP ) , SkyePharma PLC (Nasdaq: SKYE ) , and Symyx Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: SMMX ) . (For a monthly look at the best mutual funds out there, take a free trial to Motley Fool Champion Funds).
If even an Easter basket of nano companies is no sure bet of success, then what is an investor to do? Your homework, obviously. But you can increase your odds of success by concentrating on the enabler technologies. History showed that the majority of forty-niners went bust. Most of the fortunes made weren't by the gold miners, but by the guys who sold the enabling technologies: picks, shovels, blankets, tents, and dynamite.
A company that sells the latest whizbang nano gizmo may strike pay dirt, but they're just as likely to find that it doesn't pan out. What stands a better chance of success are the boring products that everyone buys without realizing it. Dig around for nanotech companies that make additives, sealants, lubricants, finishes, and other unnoticed but omnipresent enhancements to other products. (Look for companies that follow BASF's tag line: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.")
Why? Think of how successful a paint additive might be that lets a car owner press a button on the dash and change the color of his hot new Miata. Or, a finish that makes the paint 10 times more chip-resistant. How about a clear coating that reinforces vehicle windshields, or a lubricant that makes engines last longer? Soon every car on the road would be using this stuff. While one company is selling a few thousand of the whizbang nano gizmos, another might be selling millions of gallons of additives a year to every paint manufacturer on the face of the planet.
It's fine to pick a few fliers, hoping to hit the mother lode, but your odds of success should improve if you hitch a ride with some of the pick-and-shovel makers as well.
Fool contributor Mark T. Chapman is a longtime Fool and technology writer who writes sci-fi, humor, and crossword puzzles in his spare time. He goes by Chapman208 on The Motley Fool discussion boards. To comment, or publish his novels, you can email him. Mark owns IBM. The Fool has a disclosure policy.