NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A tiny ray of blue that revolutionized the lighting industry continues to tantalize investors looking to capitalize on the rise of new technology.
On Tuesday, the Nobel Prize was awarded to three scientists for their invention of a blue light emitting diode, or LED, a milestone that now serves in white-light bulbs, computer and cell phone displays, billboards and hundreds of other applications. The uses are growing and the invention has already radically changed the landscape of the lighting industry, ultimately creating valuable investment opportunities in less obvious areas.
Red and green versions of LEDs, a low-energy semiconductor, have been around for half a century, but were limited to very specific uses. Twenty years ago, the three Japan-born scientists created a blue-light LED. Combined with red and green, the invention allowed for the creation of LED-driven white light and full-color displays.
According to industry watcher IHS Technology, since the invention of the blue-light LED, the market has grown to more than 90% of all displays sold and "will account for 32% of all bulb revenues in 2014." By some estimates, LEDs could occupy as much as 80% of the lighting market by 2020.
Cree (CREE) - Get Report is the biggest pure play manufacturer of LEDs, which stands for "light-emitting diodes," with competition from diversified giants GE (GE) - Get Report and now Philips (PHG) - Get Report , which is spinning off its lighting division. Osram, traded on the Germany XETRA exchange, is also a newly separate unit that was once part of Siemens (SI) .
Forcefield Energy (FNRG) , which distributes LED products and has a contracting unit called American Lighting, is also in on the trend, focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency, but with a market cap of just $102 million.
While the rise of LEDs has provided exciting new products for consumers, the fast-changing sector has proven a difficult one for investors. Higher competition and falling prices for manufactured goods have pressured revenue. Cree shares have gone steadily down over the past year, falling over 56%. The company's lowered revenue guidance for the latest quarter pushed the stock down 22% since the beginning of the month.
Hans Moseman, a managing director at Raymond James, has had an underperform rating on CREE for some time.
"It's a good company" that was a cult stock when clean tech was hot, he said. Now, parts of the business that are growing have a "structurally low margin," while high-margin areas are not growing. "I still think consensus numbers on the out year are too aggressive."
Color screens using LEDs are brighter, highly visible even in daylight, and cheaper to make. As a result, if you want some LED technology in your portfolio you probably already have it. Apple (AAPL) - Get Report uses LEDs in its high-end Thunderbolt displays. When the Apple TV emerges, whenever that is, it will likely have some type of LED display. MacBooks have had backlit LED screens for over five years and Apple bought a company called Luxvue Technology for its microLED technology in May.
If Apple is into LED screens, of course, you can be sure Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) - Get Report is, too. The technology can be dirt cheap. As little as $99.99 will buy you a nice LED monitor at Staples (SPLS) .
Of course if you're going to have an LED screen you want a cover to protect it. Corning (GLW) - Get Report has benefitted enormously from the LED revolution. The stock has gained over 30% in the last year thanks to its Gorilla Glass product, which is used to cover flat screens. Corning also makes Organic LEDs, or OLEDs, which are used in smartphones and tablets as well as PCs.
There is really only one problem with LED screens. They're too good. There are no moving parts so they don't wear out. They're subject to the same efficiencies as microchips, so they can be just as cheap.
Thus the best way to invest in LEDs may not be through shares of a manufacturer like Cree, but to buy a company with a great, new application for highly readable screens. CBS Outdoor (CBSO) , the billboard company, can make its outdoor signs change and read like TV commercials thanks to LEDs.
You might also consider its competitors, Lamar Advertising (LAMR) - Get Report and Clear Channel Outdoor (CCO) - Get Report . These companies are able to leverage LEDs to turn existing billboard locations into multiple sales, and more effective salesmen for their clients. That giant screen at Cowboys' Stadium in Texas is also an LED screen from the Diamond Vision unit of Mitsubishi.
Jerry Jones has found the Cowboys to be a very good investment, and that's the best way to play the technology: Bet on its users.
At the time of publication the author owned shares of AAPL.
This article is commentary by an outside contributor, separate from TheStreet's news coverage.