Investors should always be on the outlook for the next big thing, but unless you're immersed in the industry, they're not always the easiest things to find. Fortunately, R&D Magazine does some of the work for you by giving awards to the top 100 inventions in the past year.
Let's take a look at some of the life sciences products that received awards to see whether they can improve some companies' bottom line or maybe make the smaller companies a takeover target.
Sew me up
After surgery, surgeons have two options for closing the incision: biodegradable stitches or metal staples. The stitches make for a better-looking scar and don't have to be removed later, but with them it takes longer to sew up a patient, increasing the risk of infection or complications under the anesthesia.
Private medical-instrument maker Incisive Surgical has designed a device that it calls a skin stapler, but I'd say it's closer to a handheld sewing machine. The device grabs skin from both sides of the incision and inserts a biodegradable staple through both flaps of skin.
Surgeons aren't known for their bedside manner, but even the all-hands-no-heart doctors should be able to see the advantage of the device over conventional staples that are uncomfortable, hurt when they're removed, and leave an ugly scar. If the device sells well, look for Incisive to be bought up by one of the current big suppliers of skin staplers such as 3M (NYSE: MMM ) or Covidien (NYSE: COV ) .
Molecular biologists have to measure the amounts of DNA, RNA (ribonucleic acid), and protein in solution on a daily basis. While methods for measuring the concentrations of the molecules have been around for decades, there have been problems with accuracy. For instance, the standard way for measuring DNA concentration using a spectrophotometer can't distinguish between DNA and RNA.
Enter Invitrogen's (Nasdaq: IVGN ) Qubit Quantitation Platform. Fluorescent probes are mixed with the solution and bind to the DNA, RNA, or proteins. Then a small benchtop-sized machine is used to measure the fluorescence. The scientists get a measurement of only the molecules they're interested in, and the machine is 1,000 times more sensitive than the typical instrument used in the laboratory, so a smaller fraction of the sample is wasted during measuring.
Like other lab-equipment companies, Invitrogen uses the model of selling the Qubit for a reasonable price, knowing that once the machine is put in the lab, it can make money for many years on reagent sales.
The platform was launched in April of last year, but Invitrogen doesn't break down individual sales of its equipment, so it's a little hard to know how well sales are going. Unfortunately for Invitrogen, scientists often have a "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" mentality and can be slow to adopt new technology. I think the machine will catch on, but it might take a few years of young scientists -- who aren't as set in their ways -- coming into the labs before it really catches on.
Have it both ways
CytoViva has designed a dual mode fluorescence (DMF) module to allow scientists to observe both cell shape and fluorescently labeled markers simultaneously. With conventional fluorescent microscopes, scientists would have to switch back and forth between the two modes to observe both types of cellular structures.
Having spent more time looking into a fluorescent microscope and switching back and forth between the different modes than I care to remember, I can tell you that this technology will increase efficiency immensely. It should be especially useful for scientists who want to observe live cells. Taking a picture in one mode and then in another was particularly challenging with cells that were moving around the microscope slide.
As dual mode fluorescence is adopted by more labs, scientists likely will increase the number of fluorescent microscopy experiments and thus their use of fluorescent reagents. That bodes well for Becton, Dickinson (NYSE: BDX ) , General Electric (NYSE: GE ) , and Sigma-Aldrich (Nasdaq: SIAL ) , all of which sell fluorescent reagents for visualizing specific parts of cells.
The next development
One thing all these inventions -- and the ones on the rest of the list -- have in common is that they solve major problems, some of which have been around for decades. Innovative discoveries don't always translate into Rule Breakers-quality high growth opportunities, but they're certainly a nice first step.