Stem cells have potential. You'd be hard-pressed to find a scientist -- or a celebrity for that matter -- who thinks studying them is a waste of time.

But, celebrity endorsements and potential don't make money. Stem cells need to produce actual treatments before they'll make investors serious money, and there's still a lot of risk of failure.

That risk makes it extremely hard for investors to value the companies. A look at the chart of Geron (NASDAQ:GERN), StemCells (NASDAQ:STEM), Cytori Therapeutics (NASDAQ:CYTX), and Osiris Therapeutics (NASDAQ:OSIR) shows wild swings in value. For instance, over the past year, Geron rose about 25%, fell about 50%, more than tripled from there, came back down to where it started a year ago, and is now up more than 70% again.

You could try to use that volatility to your advantage or you could buy larger, more stable companies like Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) or GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) that are stepping into research on stem cells. However, I've got a suggestion: Rather than going after the gold, invest in the "picks and shovels" companies that should make money even if nothing comes of stem cell research.

With that in mind, one company I like is also one of the largest players in reagents needed to grow stem cells: Life Technologies (NASDAQ:LIFE), which was formed from the merger of Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems. From solutions to grow the cells to magnetic beads that can separate stem cells from their offspring, Life Technologies is a clear leader in stem cell reagents. Its scientists have even edited a couple of books on stem cell research.

Life Technologies doesn't break out sales of its products supporting stem cell research, but stem cell system products was highlighted as one of the reasons for a 7% increase in sales at constant currency in its cell systems division last quarter.

Stem cells probably shouldn't be the only reason for investing in Life Technologies -- it's likely a small fraction of total revenue -- but, because stem cell research probably isn't going away anytime soon, these support products should continue to give the company a solid boost.

Some more Foolishness:

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Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Pfizer is an Inside Value recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.