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Best Small Cap: iRobot

In the spirit of the Winter Olympics, which started Friday in Torino, Italy, The Motley Fool is pitting companies against one another. The writers will outline why their company is the best, and our very own panel of judges will decide the winner after a period of deliberation. Stay tuned for more!

If iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) was to field a team for the Olympics, the athletes would be neat, precise, and oh so inhuman. Of course, the company that has sold more than 1.5 million Roomba vacuum-cleaning automatons would probably get disqualified as a result of that whole "robot" thing.

That's just wrong. It's discrimination, really. For our mere mortals' sake, let's hope the robots don't take it personally. I'd hate to have to bank on Sarah Connor being around to battle against the rise of the machines.

It's not just about the Roomba anymore. The company is now rolling out its Scooba floor-washing system. The portable $400 units pick up loose particles on flat-floor surfaces before dispensing a cleaning solution, which then gets sucked back up in a single pass. Clean and dry hardwood and tile floors at the press of a button? Believe it. Mop and bucket of dirty water? Meet the buggy whip. The early reviews have been glowing, with accolades trickling in from the likes of TIME and Popular Science.

By next month, the Scooba will be available at places such as Sharper Image (Nasdaq: SHRP  ) and Target (NYSE: TGT  ) . Even home-improvement giant Lowe's (NYSE: LOW  ) will begin stocking iRobot products this year. Thanks to a proprietary cleaning solution that iRobot developed in conjunction with Clorox (NYSE: CLX  ) , the Scooba will also result in perpetual consumer nondurable sales.

iRobot saves hours in the home, but it also saves lives on the battlefield. The company is a significant maker of tactical mobile robots. Last year, the number of the company's PackBot robots in the field tripled. The U.S. now has 300 PackBots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, assisting the military in recon missions and roadside bomb detection and disposal. The company is working on future applications that will enhance, and perhaps someday replace, the role of the U.S. soldier in harm's way.

iRobot is eking out a marginal profit at present. The company earned $0.11 a share last year, as revenues soared 49% higher to hit $142 million. This year won't see a whole lot of bottom-line improvement, despite expectations for sales to grow by as much as 35%.

That will likely change in the coming years, though. Pre-tax operating margins should expand considerably after clocking in at 0.4% in 2004, 2% in 2005, and guiding toward a range of 1% to 3% in 2006. In five years, the company expects pre-tax operating margins in the high teens.

Think about that. Let's say that revenues grow at a 30% annualized clip -- a figure that may prove to be conservative, since Roomba has penetrated only 1% of North American homes. In that scenario, iRobot revenues would total $527 million in 2010. That would amount to more than $3 a share in pre-tax operating profit margins, at a rate of 18%.

The company is nowhere near that now. It still needs to educate the consumer on the Scooba, which means that 18% to 19% of this year's revenues will be earmarked for sales and marketing. So even though gross margins will grow from 34% to 37% this year, iRobot's mastery may not be readily apparent on the bottom line.

Give iRobot time, though. Just 9% of the company's revenues are international at the moment. Direct sales through its website account for less than 10% of total revenues. There are so many avenues for growth for iRobot in the consumer and military fronts that it would be silly to bet against the company's prospects.

I recently recommended iRobot to Motley Fool Rule Breakers subscribers. The shares may not be off to the same blazing start as an earlier robotics selection -- David Gardner's timely pick of Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG  ) has more than doubled over the past year -- but like Intuitive, iRobot is using high-end technology to make humans' lives easier and safer. Maybe Sarah Connor was wrong: You can love the robots.

Will iRobot qualify to compete in the 2010 winter games? Probably not, but given how good the company's financials will look at that time, you might as well just give it the gold.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is watching a good chunk of the Winter Games, though he hates it when a website leaks out the live results before he gets a chance to see it unfold on NBC. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

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