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Nanotech: Huge Focus on a Small Science

Last year, companies and governments invested $8.6 billion in nanotechnology research and development, up 10% from 2003, according to Lux Research, one of the most respected research firms to rise up around nanotech. Companies such as IBM (IBM - Get Report), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Get Report), General Electric (GE - Get Report), NEC (NIPNY) and BASF (BF) are among the cutting-edge researchers in the field, although nanotech involves only a sliver of their operations today.

Some 20,000 people around the world are working in nanotechnology, a figure that the National Science Foundation expects to rise tenfold in 15 years. Forecasts for the nanotech market range all over the spectrum, but the most commonly cited is the NSF's figure of $1 trillion within the next decade.

So the interest in and commitment to nanotechnology are widespread, but beyond that, the uncertainty begins. Experts talk about the potential breakthroughs -- the ability to deliver life-saving drug proteins that the human body has so far resisted, batteries to power laptops and devices with memory chips that are many times tinier and more powerful than anything available today, elevators stretching into outer space. But no one can tell you when, or who will make them.

"There will be new companies formed that will create a phenomenal amount of value because of the revolutions they're creating," says Warren Packard, a venture capitalist at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which has been actively investing in nanotechnology startups. "At the same time, there will be many, many companies that won't make it. The fundamentals of investing and of analyzing a company's prospects don't change. Just because someone calls itself nanotechnology, that could mean nothing for its prospects."

In the same way that desperate companies such as Zapata, a Texas fish-oil company, or K-Tel, a third-rate record label, tried to reinvent themselves as Internet stars in the mid-'90s, drawing the inevitable flurry of speculative trading, many companies will don a "nanotechnology" sash without necessarily having more to do with nanotechnology beyond the fact that they're housed in buildings composed of atoms.

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