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TINY's Tiny Growth Engine

Jack Uldrich
October 4, 2006

Scientific American may not be on the top of most Fools' monthly reading list, and even if it is, subscribers may still have passed over this month's article entitled "Viral Nanoelectronics." If you are an investor in the Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation Harris & Harris (Nasdaq: TINY  ) , however, the article is worth a read.

According to Scientific American, Angela Belcher, a leading researcher at MIT, is using viruses to grab, tag, and manipulate inorganic molecules. Picture these viruses as little machines that can distinguish and select specific molecules -- kind of like being able to pick up individually colored Lego blocks -- and then place those molecules next to other molecules with which they will bond. By repeating this trick over and over again, the virus can assemble small devices with unique properties.

Why is this amazing exploitation of biology important to Harris & Harris investors? To begin with, Angela Belcher is also the co-founder of a nanotechnology start-up company called Cambrios, located in Mountain View, Calif. It just so happens that Harris & Harris is an investor in Cambrios.

Now, Cambrios is only one of about two dozen nanotechnology start-ups in which Harris & Harris has invested, so the venture capital firm's overall health isn't dependent on its success. Nonetheless, Cambrios is certainly one of its more intriguing investments, given the potential applications of its technologies. According to the Scientific American article, sometime next year, the company plans to bring to the commercial marketplace a touch-sensitive computer interface thin enough to be embedded in a flexible plastic sheet.

The first client for this technology is the U.S. Army, which is interested in having a flexible screen that can be placed on a windshield, giving soldiers a transparent interface that won't hinder their field of view during critical combat operations.

The application is limited, but the Army will probably pay Cambrios good money if it can develop the product to its specifications. Cambrios can use this money, in turn, to pursue other commercial applications -- of which there should be no shortage.

To begin with, batteries assembled via Cambrios' processes are extremely lightweight. For any number of firms -- especially laptop manufacturers such as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) or Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) -- the ability to reduce their products' weight could offer a critical advantage. Because the battery can also be "grown" to exact specifications, it could conceivably be molded to fix to whatever space a product designer needs, freeing designers to rethink their products' look and feel.

One need only look at Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPod or Motorola's (NYSE: MOT