Some of today's promising upstart companies will become tomorrow's household brands. To profit from their rise, though, you've got to find them before they hit the mainstream.
That's where the annual "Best of What's New" rundown in Popular Science magazine can help. Five years ago, this feature highlighted the hybrid Toyota (NYSE: TM ) Prius. The Japanese carmaker went on to sell more than 180,000 Priuses (Prii? Preese?) in 2007, on its way to topping Ford (NYSE: F ) in U.S. auto sales.
Toyota's stock has consistently crushed the S&P 500 benchmark in the half-decade since PopSci gave Prius the nod. I've even invested in these PopSci picks, as discussed on our Rule Breakers message boards. The potential for making real money compels me to pay attention to this yearly feature. Let's see what this year's most promising investment-grade scoops are.
The best of the best
While there are many mouthwatering technologies in this year's feature, many of them don't really apply to investors today. The Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) Kindle, which gets the nod for finally making e-books cool, won't necessarily move Amazon's needle very far for years to come. We didn't need a magazine to tell us that Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone App Store was a serious cash cow. And while the Storm-A-Rest hurricane-shield drapes look like a winner to this Floridian, the maker is a private business.
So let me instead focus on what the magazine crowned the "Innovation of the Year" instead: the Sony (NYSE: SNE ) XEL-1 OLED television. Bright, ultrathin, energy-efficient organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens could very well make your new LCD screen obsolete in the future, and the Sony model is one of the first true examples of this concept. And the OLED revolution extends beyond our TV screens -- the common light bulb is another target in its slim, thrifty crosshairs.
Looking back at this magazine in five or 10 years, the 11-inch XEL-1 may look about as quaint as 2003's Dell Jukebox music player does today. The concept is there, waiting to be developed into a truly remarkable moneymaker. However, there's no clear frontrunner here, as there was when Apple took charge of the media-player market with its game-changing iPod.
One last point: if you can't decide which electronics peddler is most likely to take a lead in this sea change, feel free to invest in the technologists that will collect license fees for OLED gadgets sold -- companies like Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL ) or Eastman Kodak (NYSE: EK ) . Until we get a clearer picture of the OLED market's future, they may be the best companies to watch.