Archive for November, 2012

November’s Fascinations of the Month

7 | By Michael A. Robinson

When it comes to a sense of smell, it’s hard to beat a dog.

Scientists say canine noses are at least 10,000 more powerful than ours. That’s tough to quantify, but this might help. As Alexandra Horowitz, dog-cognition researcher from Barnard College, wrote in “Inside of a Dog,” most humans notice if their coffee has a teaspoon of sugar added to it, but “a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools’ worth.”

That’s why police forces around the world use “sniffer” canines to detect and find explosives, drugs, and even cadavers.

Inspired by that feat of nature, a team at UC Santa Barbara has just developed a nanotech chip that is every bit as accurate as a dog’s nose. Only better.

These chips are so powerful, they can “sniff out” the differences between two molecules that to dogs or humans would smell the same. They’re capable of distinguishing between certain substances at concentrations as low as one part per billion. Oh, and they never steal meat off the counter or get sick on your carpet or whine to be taken out for a walk, of course.

According to “Electronics News,” the chip uses microfluidic nanotechnology to mimic the biological mechanism behind canine scent receptors. This new chip packs a lot of punch into a small space (it’s about the size of a fingerprint). Microchannels inside the gadget are 20 times smaller than a human hair. Once a tiny laser excites the absorbed molecules, a computer database detects the exact substance in question.

So what does it mean for investors?

Quite a lot, actually.

“The technology could be used to detect a very wide variety of molecules,” said team leader Carl Meinhart. “The applications could extend to certain disease diagnosis (from someone’s breath) food spoilage, ornarcotics detection, to name a few.”

They’re cheap, too. Though team members didn’t cite a cost for producing “sniffer chips,” they said the small devices will become so cheap that, in the near future, they could be as abundant as smoke detectors are today.

I have more exciting new cutting-edge technology to share with you this month.

But first, many of you have asked for a recording of the webinar I held Wednesday night. Just click on the video still below to find out which fascinating military technologies I think will change the world. It ended up being about 30 minutes long. I hope you enjoy it.

Five Advanced Military Technologies That Will Change the World

Now, you might be grossed out by this next fascination. But if you hold your nose and take a close look, I think you’ll see some incredible investment potential.

Click here for the whole story.

Shield Your Portfolio with Israel’s “Iron Dome”

16 | By Michael A. Robinson

Israel has a radical new ballistic-missile defense system, known as the Iron Dome, and it has saved countless lives during the last couple of weeks.

The Iron Dome is not a literal “protective bubble” set up over a city.

But it might as well be…

This portable system is made up of three components: 1) a detection and tracking radar system, 2) the Battle Management & Weapon Control (BMC) – basically a computer control center – and 3) units that fire missiles.

The radar detects incoming missiles and tracks their trajectories. Then, using this data, the BMC calculates where the missiles will likely hit and determines whether they pose a threat – and only then does the firing unit launch an interceptor (also a missile). In this way, they take out the incoming rockets in midair, where it’s safe to do so, far before they can reach their target on the ground below.

This is no easy feat. Think of standing in a field with a bow and arrow and trying to shoot down another arrow launched from a few hundred yards away. What’s more, the system can handle multiple threats simultaneously and works in any kind of weather (day or night).

Designing something that complex boggles the mind, as does the fact that it works so well. Thanks to an unending stream of breakthroughs in computing, sensors, radar, software, and guidance systems, we’re at the point where one “arrow” can now shoot down another in a matter of seconds.

The Iron Dome is a clear game-changer in defense technology.

And the investment potential is just as big…

Proof It Doesn’t “Pay” to Listen to Just Anybody about Tech Stocks

9 | By Michael A. Robinson

Loose lips sink ships. Or at least they try to…

Take the case of 3D Systems Inc. (NYSE:DDD). Investors who bailed on the stock recently – and there were a lot of them – missed a great rally yesterday. That 8.5% gain on heavy volume put the stock among the top 20 gainers of its exchange.

It’d be easy to chalk that gain up to the market’s overall rally. No doubt, investors were thrilled to see evidence that Washington just may solve its budget impasse before we go over the “fiscal cliff.” But that’s not what’s really going on here…

As I see it, DDD’s rebound yesterday was sweet justice indeed.

Or perhaps even revenge.

See, the stock had recently come under huge selling pressure after the financial advisory website Seeking Alpha slammed the company last week. An article on Seeking Alpha questioned the firm’s huge recent sales growth, accusing management of “hiding something.”

I’ve analyzed publicly traded firms for more than 30 years and I can tell you – that is a very serious charge.

In response, yesterday, 3D Systems made the unusual move of holding a conference call to dispute Seeking Alpha‘s critique. Senior managers gave analysts an on-the-record look at the firm’s accounting practices. This call ranks as a key event in the recent history of 3D Systems’ stock, which is up more than 185% so far this year. (Like I keep saying, you really can make a lot of money in this field.)

That’s why I’m telling you, you have to be very careful who you listen to about tech stocks. So, let me take a moment to tell you what’s really going on with DDD.

Here are three reasons I think DDD has the potential to blow that 185% gain out of the water.

This Artificial Skin Just Brought the Age of “Bionics” Closer

9 | By Michael A. Robinson

A new class of humans is coming to inhabit the Earth.

Indeed, scientists have just scored a major breakthrough that brings us much closer to the day of bionics. Quite simply, bionics is the name I use for biological members of our species who have any number of high-tech “upgrades.” Just with the technology we have today, these could include neural implants that combat brain disease, sensors embedded in your eyes, and a heart grown from synthetic cells.

And now these people can have artificial skin, too, if they need it.

This breakthrough comes from Stanford University. It’s the first man-made material that acts very much like real skin and so could become useful to patients on a daily basis.

It’s extremely sensitive to touch, for one thing. The material can detect infinitesimal changes in pressure – even as small as when a fly lands on it. What’s more, the material can heal itself, quickly, and over and over again. (I’ll show you how in a moment.)

This is early-stage work, but I do see a very strong investment potential coming soon. That’s because Stanford has a very active program to license it inventions to companies. Lying in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford’s been doing this since 1970. Turns out the university wants to make money, too.

Just look at its charter: “Without a company willing to invest in bringing the invention to marketplace, many potential benefits of these breakthroughs are likely to end on the page” in some scientific journal. “Our charter is to help turn scientific progress into tangible products, while returning income to the inventor and to the University to support further research.”

With regard to the “skin” Stanford has developed, the potential for products – and profits – is tremendous. We’re talking applications in medicine, electronics, construction, and even aircraft.

Team members said this “skin” could lead to a new generation of smarter prosthetics. It could also help pave the way for electronics that can heal themselves under the right conditions. And soft robots whose outer layers are sensitive to touch. The self-repair feature means it could function in tight spaces where it’s hard to make repairs, like walls, autos, and jetliners.

Of course, it could be a boon to people who wear prosthetic limbs. The material is subtle enough to detect the pressure of a handshake and also responds well to flexing, which could help give people instant feedback about the degree of bend in a joint.

That’s why I believe this one’s got “winner” written all over it…

The Fast-Moving Field of Robotic Walking Suits

9 | By Michael A. Robinson

He’s a father of four, but Brian Shaffer can only dream of what millions of parents take for granted. He’d love to be able to walk his daughter down the aisle when she gets married someday. Or climb into the bleachers to watch his son play football.

Right now, doing either would be nothing short of a miracle.

See, on Christmas Eve 2010, Shaffer was in a horrible car crash. It left him paralyzed from the waist down.

That’s why today, Shaffer is helping develop cutting-edge high tech that helps paraplegics walk again. He’s part of a test program for a new powered “exoskeleton” that functions like a robotic walking suit.

The advanced device allows people with severe spinal cord injuries to sit, stand, walk, and even climb stairs on their own. Designed for ease-of-use, the relatively light and compact system is worn over a patient’s clothes. It provides a whole new level of movement, far and away better than what’s currently on the market.

“My kids have started calling me “Ironman,'” Shaffer says – a reference to the movie by that name starring Robert Downey, Jr. as a scientist who wears a powered suit of armor that, among other things, allows him to fly.

“It’s unbelievable to stand up again,” Shaffer adds. “It takes concentration to use at first, but once you catch on, it not that hard. The device does all the work.”

This walking suit is the brainchild of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Of course, the school isn’t doing this on its own. Vanderbilt has licensed this product to a big company that has the money and the marketing muscle to make it a commercial success. And talk about a perfect fit: Parker Hannifin Corp. (NYSE:PH) is a sprawling maker of motion and control systems.

The team believes their invention could be on the market as early as 2014.

This is a great example of how the latest high-tech breakthroughs can go from the lab to the market.

Many of the best tech advances do come out of colleges. Even though we focus on the investment angle to all these stories, I often tell you about seemingly “academic” advances, because I know that many such schools actively court licensing deals with companies. Either that, or the researchers go out on their own and start new firms.

These are just two of the ways in which we can invest in fascinating new technology.

The details on this device are just fantastic

Carbon Nanotubes and the Future of Computing

17 | By Michael A. Robinson

We have to come up with a new name for Silicon Valley.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not going away. The famous region at the southern end of San Francisco Bay will continue being home to the world’s top high-tech companies. It’s just that we won’t be able to call it “Silicon Valley” much longer.

After all, the region earned its nickname based on the type of material we use to make semiconductors for a wide range of computers.

And that material is going to have to change.

Of course, silicon still holds a huge lead over other substances in computer chip design. But there’s a fundamental problem with silicon chips.

Engineers are running out of room on them.

You see, the Valley runs on a basic rule that has remained unchanged for many decades. It’s called Moore’s Law, and it states that computing power roughly doubles every two years. This explains why your smart phone is a better, faster computer than the mainframes NASA had when it made its moon shots in the ’60s.

To keep up with Moore’s Law, we need to pack ever more transistors – the tiny switches used to control computers – on semiconductors. The current number stands at more than a billion (on an area smaller than a postage stamp). That’s impressive. But at some point, the law of physics will limit how many transistors we can place on a piece of silicon.

It’s fast getting to the point where we can’t physically make transistors any smaller. And once we run out of real estate, the growth in processing power will hit a brick wall, in turn, slowing the entire pace of innovation around the globe.

That’s why I’m glad to tell you today about a new computing breakthrough from International Business Machines Inc. (NYSE:IBM). They scored a huge advance that could soon put the tech world light years ahead of where we are today.

This novel new material is made of a very familiar substance…

More Q&A with Michael

2 | By Michael A. Robinson

You continue to post thoughtful, intelligent comments and questions in response to my Era of Radical Change columns. Thank you.
This tells me we have a very savvy, active, and well-informed set of readers. I’m always eager to see what you bring to the discussion. Without your help and input, this column wouldn’t be so successful (or nearly as fun to write).
Of course, the sheer volume of comments I get makes it impossible for me to address them all individually along the way. But I promise to keep doing my best.
With that in mind, let’s tackle some of your latest queries…
Starting with a really interesting comment about 3D printing stocks.
Q: My background in materials strength and stress-strain analysis tells me we must expect a development period of some five to ten years until 3D-printing can become a real breakthrough in terms of manufacturing of mechanical parts. I would be cautious about investing heavily now in the hope of short or mid-term profits. ~ Al G.
A: Al, I can’t compete with your knowledge of materials, and I won’t even try.
But I do want to point out that we may be talking about two different aspects of 3D printing.
Clearly, there is a growing market for small businesses and consumers. These are lower-priced, entry-level printers. The cheapest mass market machine from a major company costs about $1,300. As Al points out, that’s not going to give you solid, working metal parts that you might want to use in a car or a plane or for a lathe in a machine shop, for that matter.
However, many big companies are buying much more robust, expensive printers and putting them to good use throughout their supply chains. One publicly traded company for your radar screen is Stratasys Inc. (NasdaqGS:SSYS). This firm is going after more of the upper end of the market – big outfits that can work this tech into their manufacturing lineups.
As regards investing, you should always be careful. But I don’t think it’s too early to make money from 3D printing stocks.
And here’s proof…