The following is part of our week-long Rule Breaker series, where we Foolishly examine several companies and ask, "Is it a Rule Breaker?" Hey, even better, we'll answer the question for you.
What images come to mind when you think of International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM ) ?
If you are old enough, you may imagine the clunky punch card calculating machines almost as big as the desk they sat on. Middle-aged Fools may conjure up an image of the scene, now part of commercial folklore, when IBM made the strategic decision in 1981 to allow the developer of the DOS operating system, originally created for IBM, to keep his marketing rights. A student dropout named Bill Gates and his fledgling Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) have never looked back.
A more recent image is of IBM's Deep Blue, the computer so powerful it defeated Garry Kasparov, arguably the finest chess mind in history, in 1997.
Nanotechnology followers have an image of IBM scientists manipulating 35 individual xenon atoms in 1989 to spell out I-B-M. They were able to do this because of the scanning tunneling microscopes they invented.
A couple weeks back, Fool Jack Uldrich gave a good overview of the breadth of potential revolutionary nano developments underway at IBM. These efforts illustrate that IBM continues to break the rules of research and development.
In fact, IBM has always been breaking the rules. Before those clunky punch card machines, accountants used their fingers to count. But IBM is also the quintessential Rule Maker, able to dictate the rules, the playing field, and even change the language. IBM coined the term "PC," for personal computer. That fact alone discounts IBM as a lean, mean Rule Breaking machine -- but it doesn't mean that it is out of the game.
Just as IBM was responsible for elevating the Linux operating system by agreeing to feature it in its computers, its pioneering work in nanotechnology is acting as a catalyst for other companies to become Rule Breakers.
The nano innovations IBM has developed, such as the "millipede" high-density data storage system and the use of spintronics to enhance magnetic random access memory (MRAM), are more suited to IBM's core expertise in information technology. Accordingly, those developments started in-house and are kept in-house for their own commercial benefit. However, IBM also develops products outside its area of expertise, and these products can be of great value to other companies.
For example, IBM invented the aforementioned scanning tunneling microscopes. Because IBM is not a toolmaker, it sold these assets to Veeco Instruments (Nasdaq: VECO ) in 2000. Veeco used them to develop the atomic force microscope (AFM).
Veeco is a nano toolmaker that went on a buying spree between 2000 and 2003, collecting several companies along the way. Veeco looked set to merge with FEI Company (Nasdaq: FEIC ) , another leading nano toolmaker, in 2003. Had that merger gone through (it was called off at the last minute), the combined company would have been a powerhouse in the developing nano-tool universe; one that could rightly be called a Rule Breaker capable of setting the rules for an entire new industry.
Veeco and FEI have recently reported healthy revenue growth that indicates the semiconductor and optical equipment industries are increasingly requiring AFMs and other tools that work at the nanoscale. Neither company, however, is a Rule Breaker on its own.
We're not implying that they are not worthy investments. In fact, their recent results may indicate that they are exactly that. But when searching for Rule Breakers, we look for companies with the potential for extraordinary growth, visionary management, first-mover status, and sustainable products aimed at sustainable markets built on potentially disruptive technology.
IBM is not a Rule Breaker, and its nano-tool innovations have not yet provided us with a Rule Breaker. But what about IBM's work in nanobiotechnology?
Curiously, at the height of the human genome chase in 2000, neither Celera Genomics (NYSE: CLA ) nor Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI ) filed the most biotech patents. IBM did. IBM remains the leading submitter of nanotechnology patents, with nearly 1,000 already filed. With that in mind, it is no surprise that IBM's work where nano and bio converge has produced breakthroughs, most notably in quantum dots.
Quantum dots are a disruptive technology. They are stable, nano-sized, water-soluble crystals made of a semiconductor material. At this size, materials behave differently, giving quantum dots unprecedented tunability and enabling applications to exploit its unique properties at the nanoscale.
In 2001, IBM perfected a production process for manufacturing quantum dots using lead selenide (PbSe) as the semiconductor material. In 2003, Evident Technologies licensed the process from IBM, adding the material to its product range of patented quantum dots trademarked as evidots and evicomposites. Evident Technologies and Quantum Dot Corporation are the leading developers of this revolutionary product.
Quantum dots have the ability to fluoresce at different wavelengths, producing different colors. Natural phosphors emit light only at a wavelength and color determined by nature. Quantum dots can be tuned or tailored to suit specific applications, which include use as biosensors in life sciences, wavelength converters in LEDs, next-generation components in solar cells, and superior switching devices in photonics. In all of these applications, the use of quantum dots has produced better results at lower costs.
Evident Technologies and Quantum Dot Corporation own this technology courtesy of IBM. It remains to be seen which of the two make it to market first or attract the strongest partners and customers.
Nanotechnology is approaching the dawn of its commercialization across practically every existing industry. Our Rule Breakers newsletter research team looks for the specific companies that operate even ahead of this curve. some of which are out there thanks to non-Rule Breaker IBM. If you'd like to join us in our hunt for Rule Breaking companies, or see what businesses we've recommended so far, click here for a 30-day free trial.
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Carl Wherrett owns shares of Microsoft. John Yelovich does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.