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Nanotech Players' Low-Risk Profile

Next time a conversation with a fellow investor starts to flag, here are two sure ways to jump-start it: Change the subject to the perils of nanotechnology, or change it to social and environmental responsibility.

And if you really want to get things hopping, start talking about both at once.

That's just what Heather Langsner has done. A senior analyst at Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, a New York company that describes itself as "an environmental investment research advisory firm," Langsner not only compiled a nanotech index for value investors, she backed it up with a report that assesses, in part, "the perception risk that may be associated with the environmental, health and safety profile of nanotechnology."

Never mind that the world of nano, still more science than technology, is a bit young to be a preoccupation of value investors. Or that the debate over environmental and health hazards from nanotech applications, while raging in Europe, is much more muted in the U.S. Or that the field of social responsibility is still reeling from The Economist's 11,000-word jeremiad in January, which dismissed it as "morally dubious" and "a license to obfuscate."

Innovest's nanotech report offers serious food for thought for nanotech investors. First off, Langsner scores points for writing a 124-page report without once reaching for the phrase "grey goo" -- the world-smothering result of self-replicating nanorobots run amok (kind of like blogs, only with molecules instead of opinions).

More importantly, Innovest's report analyzes a more immediate risk than grey goo: How likely are emerging technologies to cause consumers to freak out as some did over the perceived health threats of genetically modified organisms, and further, how smart are companies in heading off that threat?

After all, profiting from emerging technologies depends as much on exploiting their promise as avoiding their pitfalls -- how do you get genetically modified seeds to help agriculture without harming nature? Or run a nuclear plant without nuclear meltdowns? Or conduct data mining without privacy invasions? Companies diligent in addressing such questions have done well, while the cavalier have suffered.

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