In his informative and insightful book Quantum Investing, author Stephen Waite points out that of the 12 companies making up the original Dow Jones Industrial Average, only one -- General Electric (NYSE: GE ) -- still exists today. The others, including National Lead, Chicago Gas, American Sugar, U.S. Leather, and Tennessee Coal & Iron, were long ago relegated to ash heap of history.
Time indeed marches on, and Waite goes so far as to suggest that at our current pace of technological change, society will experience an amount of change within the next 20 years comparable to what it experienced in the past 100 years before that. Using history as guide, he then speculates that as many as 27 out of the 30 companies comprising today's Dow Index may be gone by 2025.
Such a prediction might sound far-fetched, but I find it quite plausible. For instance, given the rapid advances being made with new nanomaterials, I can easily envision a troubling and uncertain future for a company like Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) . Advances in battery and fuel cell technology could spell problems for the already embattled General Motors (NYSE: GM ) , and the development of inexpensive, sturdy flexible electronics could render a sizeable portion of International Paper's (NYSE: IP ) business obsolete in the near future. The list could go on, but the broad point is that few, if any, companies are safe from the relentless forces of technological change.
What, then, is a long-term investor to do?
Part of the answer, I believe, can be found in the emerging science of nanotechnology. This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Fifth Annual NanoBusiness Alliance Conference out in New York City, and I was impressed with how some of the Fortune 100 companies viewed nanotechnology as a critical component of their overall growth strategy. For these companies, nanotech is not simply a long-term research-and-development project that might lead to some promising breakthroughs in five to 10 years, but rather a practical field of science that's being applied to improve existing products today.
The opening presenter was Michael Idelchik, vice president of Advanced Technology at GE Global Research. Saying nanotechnology has become "a huge enabler" of existing products, he said GE expects the market for nano-enabled products to grow at an annual rate of 70% per year for the next decade. If true, this means that nano-enabled products will expand from a modestly sized market of $13 billion today to $2.6 trillion -- with a "T" -- by 2015.
Among the many nano-related applications Idelchik said GE is working on are improved wear and abrasion coatings, higher-strength engineering alloys, more efficient fuel-cell membranes, more damage-resistant ceramics for aircraft engines, longer-lasting nanoparticles for molecular imaging, and breakthroughs in thermoelectrics that could lead to, among other things, solid-state refrigeration. He went on to refer to nanotechnology the "ultimate in material science" and called it the "sweet spot for GE."
The next speaker was Nabil Sakkab, senior vice president at Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) . Sakkab said that innovation holds the key to ensuring that P&G remains as part of the Dow Jones Index, and he detailed the ways in which his company is building external networks with leading nanotechnology experts in universities and research institutions across the country. He also underscored that P&G is reaching out to entrepreneurs and private nanotechnology start-up companies to ensure that innovation stays at the forefront of the company's culture.
Sakkab further stressed that nanotechnology is ideal for P&G's goal of "doing more with less." Among the examples he cited were how nanoparticles are currently being used to reformulate existing products -- such as cleaning detergents and odor-control devices -- to make them more effective and longer-lasting.
The third and final speaker at the conference's morning session was Vida Ilderem, vice president of Embedded Systems at Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) . She said an enhanced understanding of nanotechnology is a vital component of Motorola's strategy for developing breakthrough technologies, and she specifically mentioned the role that nanotech has already played in the creation of new nano-emissive flat panel displays. Ilderem also expressed her excitement at the role nanotechnology will play in enabling continued advances in everything from next-generation sensors and RFID devices to nano-enabled computer circuits.
Just because GE, P&G, and Motorola are all actively working on nanotechnology, that's no guarantee that any of them will still be on the Dow Index in the future. But I do think it makes their falling away decidedly less likely.
After all, one of the reasons GE is the sole survivor from the original Dow Index is that it understood early on that electricity was not its main product. Rather, GE viewed electricity as a broad-based enabling technology that could be applied across a variety of fields and products. As such, GE became much more "general" and less "electric."
The same is true with nanotechnology. The companies that survive for the long term are unlikely to be strictly nanotechnology companies, per se. They will, however, almost certainly understand how nanotechnology can and must be applied to create new applications and new products. And, ultimately, it is these advances -- and the revenues they generate -- that will determine which companies are still around in two decades and which have gone the way of U.S. Leather and Tennessee Coal & Iron.
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Jack Uldrich is the author of the new book Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He owns shares in GE and Motorola. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.