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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

NEWS: Nanotech's High Huckster Multiple

By Kevin Kelleher
TheStreet.com Senior Writer3/30/2005 7:05 AM ESTURL:

Depending on whom you ask, the LightWave Energy Patch is either the first miracle of nanotechnology or just an early instance of 21st-century snake oil. Do an Internet search on the patch -- it claims to employ "nano-scale organic antennas" to give bodybuilders a jolt of energy -- and you'll find inspiring testimonials from presumably beefed-up customers and scathing denunciations from less-than-musclebound scientists.

Under its manufacturer's liberal definition of nanotechnology -- "manufactured products that are made from atoms" -- the polyester patch is undeniably a nanotech product. But so is the computer screen you're reading this on. What's less clear is whether the nanopatch delivers as advertised. But the advertisements themselves are emblematic of the growing trend in using the buzz of nanotechnology as a marketing ploy to give an otherwise unremarkable product a LightWave-like infusion of promotional energy.

...But for the small-caps, volatility is becoming an everyday event. On Tuesday, NVE (NVEC:Nasdaq) issued a press release announcing the issuance of a patent titled "Magnetic Field Sensor With Agumented Magnetoresistive Sensing Layer." Rarely has such technical jargon inspired so much arousal. NVE's stock rocketed as much as 21% on the announcement, with 1.7 million shares traded during the day. Not bad for a company with an $80 million market cap.

At least NVE has been able to deliver profits for two years running. Another nanoplay with high turnover is Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI:Nasdaq) , which says its nanomaterials may find applications in everything from fuel cells to long-lasting batteries and from cosmetics to drug delivery. Despite those potential applications, Altair brought in $1 million in revenue last year and posted a loss of $7 million.

"Altair has had its technology out there for five or six years, and it has yet to be validated by a single top-tier industrial partner," says Nordan. "There's been no real validation in terms of commitment to ship products based on Altair's materials. What there has been is the word nanotechnology in the company name and, you know, a great deal of press-release activity."

...Even with companies that are producing products based on nanotechnology, there remains the risk that the market demand for them just won't be that strong. "We're seeing again and again more technology push than market pull in nanotechnology," says Harper. "Carbon nanotubes have been around for about 15 years now, but you're still looking for that killer application. We saw this with the Internet as well: The technology got way ahead of the market pull. Too much of that overhang and you're in danger of a crash."

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