Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over market movements, we do like to keep an eye on big changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.
What: iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) shares soared more than 17% on four times average trading volume, before settling in to a 11.4% gain as they closed the trading day at an all-time high of $41.99. The robotic-maker best known for its Roomba home vacuuming robots has seen the price of its stock gain nearly 21% year to date in 2014, following a phenomenal rise of 85% in 2013. Shares are up 103% over the one-year period.
So what: The impetus for today's pop was news that iRobot's patent portfolio recently ranked high in the Patent Board's "Patent Scorecard." This annual scorecard, published in late January by The Wall Street Journal, ranks the patent strength among technology companies in various industries. iRobot ranked No. 5 overall in the electronics and instruments industries. Further, iRobot took the No. 2 spot in the "Science Strength" category and No. 4 in "Industry Impact" among the 50 top companies in its industry group.
iRobot's rankings are impressive, with the company placing higher overall than such electronics powerhouses as Samsung, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, and Honeywell. Its score in Science Strength, which measures the degree to which a company's patent portfolio is linked to core science, beat out all but Life Technologies'; while its ranking in Industry Impact, which measures the impact of a company's patents on technology developed by the rest of the industry, lagged only those of Dycom, Cummins, and Faro Technologies.
The weakest link in iRobot's armor seems to be its "Innovative Cycle Time." This category measures how fast a company's portfolio is innovating on the latest technologies. iRobot's 13.7 years ranks it near the bottom of the list. That said, this measure also seems the least meaningful, as comparing innovation cycle times among companies that make such diverse products likely has little relevance. Further, given iRobot was an early pioneer in the home robotics market and the market is still relatively new, there's likely not been much out there in the way of technologies upon which to innovate. That, of course, should be changing very quickly, given that tech powerhouses such as Google and Amazon.com have gone on robotics companies buying sprees recently.
iRobot has been awarded 238 U.S. patents, and more than 400 worldwide, according to a press release by IP law firm Fish and Richardson.
Now what: While patents are far from the sole ingredient for success, even in highly technical arenas, they're a very important component. So, these rankings bode well for iRobot, especially given the home robotics industry – iRobot generates about 90% of its revenue from its home segment, which makes various cleaning robots – is in its nascent stage, where patent strength would seem to matter more.
While this patent news is a positive, I suspect a portion of today's rise was due to it coming out on the back of iRobot's release of its fourth-quarter and full-year 2013 earnings report last Wednesday. Investors largely viewed the report positively after digesting it and deciding to focus on the strong results in the company's home segment and the longer-term growth picture, while discounting the company's lighter than expected 2014 guidance. iRobot posted earnings per share of $0.11 versus a loss of $0.21 in the year-ago period, while revenue was up 25.5% to $126.3 million. EPS beat the consensus by a penny, while revenue came in roughly in line.
iRobot remains on target with its longer-term goals, and the home robotics market should be reaching a tipping point in the near future. So, investors with a long-term horizon might consider further exploring iRobot as a potential investment. That said, given the competition in this space is heating up, investors do need to keep a close eye on iRobot's margins.