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Harris & Harris Seeks Some Sun and Surf

Growing up and now living in Minnesota, I have learned to bear the state's harsh winters as some sort of demented badge of honor. And, as the descendant of a long line of no-nonsense German and Irish immigrants, I have been taught that following a slow-and-steady course is often the best path to success.

As a result of this typical Midwestern upbringing, I have always secretly envied individuals who were able to unshackle themselves from geographical and cultural constraints and break away to the sunshine and warmth of California. I hold in even greater esteem those few who venture west not simply in search of sun, but for the grander challenge and excitement of surfing some really huge waves.

I was reminded of this "sun and surf" envy after reading about Harris & Harris' (Nasdaq: TINY  ) -- a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation -- two latest investments. The venture capital firm, which specializes in investing in nanotechnology-related start-ups, announced last month that it was the lead investor in a $7.5 million Series B funding round for Innovalight. Innovalight is a California-based start-up that is developing solar cells which incorporate silicon nanocrystals into a revolutionary new nanotechnology-related "printing" process.

Innovalight's CEO said that, if successful, its process could reduce the cost of producing solar-generated electricity by tenfold. If true, this would place Innovalight's price somewhere around $0.50 or $0.60 per watt and make it very competitive with fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Of course, the effectiveness and prices of Innovalight's solar cells are still big "ifs," and the company faces considerable competition from other start-ups such as Konarka, Nano-Solar, and Nanosys -- not to mention more established solar players like Sharp, Kyocera (NYSE: KYO  ) and BP Solar, a division of BP plc (NYSE: BC  ) . But given solar energy's impressive growth rate, Harris & Harris' move looks like a prudent investment in a technology that is poised to move into the mainstream in a big way.

The firm's other recent investment appears considerably riskier. Just last week, Harris & Harris disclosed that it had invested a modest amount in D-Wave Systems, a British Columbia company seeking to develop a quantum computer.

Quantum computers are not confined by the same limitations as today's classical computers and can perform a mind-boggling number of calculations. Not even IBM's (NYSE: IBM  ) latest supercomputer comes anywhere near to the sheer processing power of a quantum computer. As such, it is believed that quantum computers may someday be able to solve a variety of problems that have heretofore gone unsolved.

For instance, quantum computers can optimize trucking and shipping routes and help design next-generation computer chips. Perhaps most importantly, these machines can model other complex quantum systems, such as the complex chemical and molecular interactions that lie at the heart of today's chemical, pharmaceutical, and life sciences industries.

The bottom line is that the investment in D-Wave Systems is the kind of investment that could reap huge -- and I mean huge -- dividends. In this way it is somewhat analogous to going out to California in hopes of becoming a professional surfer. Most people who attempt to catch and ride the largest waves will crash, but for the fortunate few who take the risk and have the talent, the payoff can be extraordinary.

So if you're looking for a little sun (in the form of solar power) and fun (in the form of quantum computing), I encourage you to consider an investment in Harris & Harris. Its investment in Innovalight seems quite solid, and its investment in D-Wave could, quite possibly, help you catch one of the biggest waves -- quantum computing -- in the next 20 years.

The closest Fool contributor Jack Uldrichcomes to catching any waves is when he takes his kids to the local water park, complete with artificial wave maker. He is the author of two books on nanotechnology, including his most recent,Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He owns shares in Harris & Harris. The Motley Fool has a strict disclosure policy.

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