If the world were fair, the euphonious name of Uruguay-born scientist Alejandro C. Zaffaroni would roll off high-tech investors' lips just as easily as the monosyllabic Bill Gates, Jim Clark and Steve Case.
Gates and Case, after all, have each only founded a single billion-dollar enterprise. Clark is celebrated for having founded three:
. Yet Zaffaroni has co-founded four billion-dollar biotechnology companies and, in his late 70s, continues to create wealth for shareholders at a rate that few, if any, peers can match.
Zaffaroni's latest two inventions --
-- could ultimately be the best fruits of a sturdy family tree. Their shares have advanced smartly since initial public offerings last fall, but still appear underappreciated by private investors, partly because their products, like most in the biotech field, are so arcane. This is a shame, for it is not much of a stretch to suggest that these two firms promise to improve a great many more lives, and gain more value over time, than nine-tenths of their peers plying bits of data or soap on the Internet.
The stocks are too well advanced in size by now to make my first team of stocks that could advance by 10,000% in value over 10 years. But Maxygen, at least, qualifies for a second team I'll start fielding today of stocks that I think could advance at least 1,000% over five years. Please remember that both these groups of stocks are long shots appropriate only for individuals with enough patience to wait for nascent markets to develop forcefully, and with enough funds to put at genuine risk. You can track the progress of these picks on the
SuperModels 100x10y and 10x5y portfolio page.
Maxygen's Work Has Wide Scope
Here's why I like Maxygen, which was first suggested by a reader in December: Unlike most companies in the biotech sphere, this company doesn't target a single interesting market -- like osteoporosis, cancer or sexual dysfunction. Instead, it applies next-generation genetics-engineering techniques to solve problems in a wide range of multibillion-dollar markets, from the improvement of the enzyme that helps laundry detergent make your whites whiter to better farm-animal vaccines and enhanced soybean seeds.
The strength of this business plan is its diversity and potential for speed -- and there is no underestimating the latter. While genetically engineered proteins intended for human ingestion can wend through the federal regulatory maze for many costly years and still never emerge, zippy new molecules intended for bovines or bath water are very often approved with a hand wave. If they work in the lab, they can move quickly to industry or the field and start making money. Better yet, Maxygen retains royalty rights to the compounds that it creates under contract from industrial titans like
, creating the potential for annuity-like streams of dollars that flow for decades.
Founder of String of Biotech Successes
Zaffaroni learned the lesson of focusing on biotechnology platforms -- or sets of tools -- rather than specific drugs midway through his career. His earliest success came in 1951 with
-- the Mexican pharmaceutical manufacturer that developed the Pill for contraception. He went on to found the eponymous
in 1968, as the developer of innovative drug-delivery systems, such as skin patches and time-release capsules. Then came
in 1980, which specialized in combining genetic engineering with immunobiology. Affymax followed in 1988 to pioneer work in the new field of combinatorial chemistry. It was followed by Symyx in 1993, to focus on combinatorial materials;
in 1993 to develop a tool called the GeneChip that revolutionized genomics research; and lastly, Maxygen in 1997 to hurry evolution with a set of DNA-shuffling techniques called "molecular breeding."
The scorecard for investors: DNAX was sold to Schering-Plough (SGP:NYSE - news - boards) in 1982; Affymax went to Glaxo Wellcome (GLX:NYSE - news - boards) for $533 million in 1994. Of the currently independent firms, Affymetrix today fetches a market capitalization of $6 billion, Maxygen is worth $5 billion and Symyx is the baby of the family at $1.2 billion.
Gene-Shuffling Has Wide Application
But enough of the past. What makes Maxygen, in particular, a candidate for a big market capitalization someday is that, in addition to generating immediate revenue by licensing its high-speed gene-shuffling technology to industrial or pharmaceutical concerns, it retains the potential for high-margin, product-development revenues of its own.
Maxygen already has more than 40 products in the pipeline, which is a lot. In case you're just catching up with investments in biotech, take note that these companies need just a couple of hits to become wildly successful.
, for instance, has grown to a $60 billion market cap largely on the strength of just two drugs: Epogen and Neupogen. Meanwhile,
has a $35 billion market cap on the strength largely of three: Enbrel, Leukine and Novantrone.
So what's the big deal with gene shuffling? Think of evolution as if it were a game of poker in which players are dealt genes instead of cards. To develop a better human being or stalk of corn over the past few million years, Mother Nature keeps shuffling her deck of chromosomes, via the process of procreation, until she gets a winning combination -- a genetic royal flush. This takes a long, long time. Eons, in fact. Classical breeding techniques developed by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century sped up the process a great deal, but principles and equipment developed in the past decade by first-generation genomics companies like
, Affymetrix and
vastly accelerated the pace. Now, Maxygen's techniques take the process up by an order of magnitude -- allowing scientists to shuffle genes at an astonishing rate. What once took generations now takes weeks. In the past 25 years, the biotech industry has created fewer than 50 therapeutics for the treatment of disease. Maxygen's techniques provide a faster, more efficient way to potentially create the next 500 products.
An Industry With Dramatic Growth Potential
The company is currently in a quiet period as it prepares to sell an additional 1.5 million shares to raise money for general corporate purposes, so its executives were not available for interviews. However, a biotech analyst, who also declined to be quoted by name due to the quiet period, said that applications for Maxygen in the chemical industry alone could potentially be totaled in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In an interview conducted in early February, he said: "Right now the genomics industry is in a time frame that's equivalent to when the Internet consisted of
, circa 1992. There's been a lot of wealth created since then in the Internet, and I think the value in names like Maxygen could ultimately be much more significant."
In summary, it appears that Maxygen can play a key role anywhere that DNA can encode something worth money -- from vaccines, anti-cancer drugs and new-age nutraceuticals to enzymes that turn cellulose into cheap fuel. Indeed, it's hard to imagine an industry where, in 10 years, you couldn't see the life sciences finding new and improved applications. One recent deal with mining giant
, for example, calls upon Maxygen to develop ways to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from industrial processes.
Combine those ambitions with a gold-plated management team and board, cash and equivalents of $136 million, virtually no debt and a research-and-development effort that's a profit center rather than a drain, and you could potentially have one of the great success stories of the decade. I regret not writing about the company right after I did my initial interviews, when the stock was at 70 instead of 140. (If I decide to buy the stock for my personal portfolio, I will wait at least three days after this column is published.)
Back in the world of mechanical trading techniques, our 20-stock
Year-trader portfolio continues to roll -- up 38% for the year through March 13. Its six-stock MVP Growth model was up more than 61% by that date, while the six Redwoods and five Flares trailed with gains of 52% and 21%. Our
Month-trader Flares, meanwhile, finally rode into the black behind a strong move in the shares of fiber-optic testing-products maker
. And the
HiMARQ portfolio has finally busted loose for a solid lead over the broad indices as well. All could well consolidate their gains over the next few months, as high-tech investors catch their breath.
Jon D. Markman is managing editor for MSN MoneyCentral Investor. At time of publication, he was long Amgen, BroadVision, Digital Lightwave, EMC, Emulex, Gemstar International, ION Networks, Kopin, Microsoft, Nokia, Oracle, Qualcomm, SDL, Siebel Systems, Sun Microsystems, Superconductor Technologies and Xcelera.com, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Markman welcomes your feedback at
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