Altair: Recharged or Unplugged?

Longtime readers of the Motley Fool will know that I'm hardly a fan of Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI  ) . I think the company has been too quick to exploit investors' interest in nanotechnology, but decidedly less speedy in delivering on its promises. Still, while I think Altair trades at an unsustainably high place, the recent promotion of Alan Gotcher to its presidency has prompted me to take a closer look.

Since assuming the position in March 2005, Gotcher, who previously held senior positions with Avery Dennison (NYSE: AVY  ) and Raychem, has significantly reduced the number of dubious press releases issued by the company. He has also provided more strategic focus, and more importantly, helped Altair achieve some legitimate accomplishments -- accomplishments that actually deserved press releases.

A real partnership
The most significant of these breakthroughs was a collaborative research, licensing, and commercialization agreement with Elanco, the animal-health division of Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY  ) , in May. The agreement certifies Altair's nanostructured materials as an approved pharmaceutical ingredient, a legitimate step in the right direction for the company. Investors need to temper their enthusiasm, though, until the business actually begins meeting some of the testing and development milestones set by Eli Lilly.

In a recent conversation with Gotcher, I didn't learn what these milestones might be, but he did indicate that investors could expect an undisclosed payment from Eli Lilly later this year.

If that payment is forthcoming -- and that's a big if -- it will be another productive move for Altair. Still, investors need to understand that any significant payoff in the pharmaceutical arena is years away. It'll likely take that long for any drug that Eli Lilly is manufacturing with Altair's nanostructured materials to pass the Food and Drug Administration's rigorous approval process. Lest investors need any reminding, the pharmaceutical industry is highly competitive, and there's no guarantee that sales will follow, even if Altair's nanostructured materials do find a home in an approved product.

Time for a NanoCheck?
A second product long touted by Altair, but yet to add much punch to the company's sparse bottom line -- Altair only generated $1 million in total revenues in the second quarter of 2006 -- is NanoCheck. Comprised of a number of particles 20 to 40 nanometers in size, NanoCheck aggregates into a regular powder that bonds exclusively with phosphate. This reportedly helps keep pools clean by removing the phosphates that would otherwise nourish algae.

Gotcher claims that Altair is already shipping NanoCheck, and that it is a profitable product. I have no reason to question that statement, but I would remind investors that they'd be wise to temper their enthusiasm until more concrete numbers for NanoCheck surface. After all, it would take a lot of revenue to justify the company's current market cap of almost $170 million.

Is its battery technology fully charged?
Of course, Altair isn't just counting on NanoCheck or its relationship with Eli Lilly to generate sales. In fact, the technology that has been generating the most excitement lately -- and which, according to Gotcher, offers the most promise -- is the company's lithium titanate battery.

Reportedly, this battery technology has undergone rigorous safety evaluations and passed all IEC safety tests -- thus greatly minimizing the possibility of any Dell-like (Nasdaq: DELL  ) recalls. It's focused on serving the electric vehicle (EV) automobile market.

On the positive side, the company has received a $750,000 order from Phoenix Motors, a small manufacturer of electric vehicles. Like the Eli Lilly deal, this agreement suggests that Altair has moved beyond the hype phase with this technology.

Phoenix is reportedly testing Altair's batteries in a fleet of electric vehicles for a utility company. Gotcher indicated that the batteries will begin shipping later this year, and that he expects additional follow-on orders.

Again, investors should confirm such follow-on orders before they get too excited. The field of battery technology is highly competitive, and a number of very large and well-financed companies, including major automobile manufacturers such as Ford (NYSE: F  ) , General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) , and Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , are pursuing related technologies. If the technology works as Altair officials claim, giving vehicles a range of 250 miles and a recharge time of 6-8 minutes, it should be able to pretty much sell itself.

Big conclusions on small technologies
In addition to the partnership with Eli Lilly, the NanoCheck sales, and the order from Phoenix Motors, the company has built a new 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Indiana, and also now has more than 60 people on staff in its Reno, Nev., headquarters. These signs have convinced me that Altair has moved from a nano-pretender simply seeking to exploit nanotechnology to a real company working on developing real products.

But I'm less convinced that Altair can also generate real profits. The company only has about $14 million in cash on hand, and with a current burn rate of slightly more than $1 million a month, Gotcher must begin delivering within the next year.

If he's right -- if the Eli Lilly agreement leads to milestone payments, NanoCheck sales increase, and Phoenix Motors adds a follow-on order -- Altair's burn rate should slow considerably, and there should be no reason for the company to have to float additional shares to generate new money.

If not, however, expect shareholders to bear the brunt of management's inability to translate this forward momentum into real revenues and profits.

Altair doesn't have a strong past track record to fall back on. Would-be investors should keep their eyes on the company, but their powder dry. If any of the aforementioned positive developments do materialize, there should be plenty of time to invest. For now, it seems that most of Altair's promise has already been priced into its shares.

Further Foolish minuscule musings:

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology, including Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. At the time of publication, he held no financial position in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Eli Lilly is aMotley Fool Income Investorpick, while Dell was picked by bothStock AdvisorandInside Value. The Fool has adisclosure policy.


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