Big things start small. Acorns to oaks, snowflakes to avalanches, ideas to revolutions. Big things are in the news, whether we are interested or not; but, because they are big, editors and reporters talk about them. Big things touch many people, so the news touches more lives. I look elsewhere because usually by the time something is recognized as big, Its effects are nearing their end. It is not new and therefore not news. I enjoy watching for the disruptive notions, ingenious solutions, comically simple insights. That’s where the new news lives.
Every major philosophy and institution began as an idea in one person’s head. Occasionally there is simultaneity, just ask Rupert Sheldrake about his research into morphic resonances (at least as I understand it.) An idea living in only one head has a fragile home. We humans aren’t invulnerable, yet. Somewhere between a solitary address and world-wide reach, an idea is planted in hopefully fertile ground. One of the nice things about most ideas is that the same seed can be planted many times.
That’s not true in the world of business. Intellectual property rights, patents and inventions particularly, reside within one company at a time for the first twenty years. That seems like a long time, but in high tech and biotech, two decades may be needed to develop the supporting technologies, prove safety and efficacy, and clear the regulatory hurdles. It’s a risky business, and small businesses can only accommodate a few risks. Many ideas are shelved or forgotten. Some are sold and licensed if they are valuable enough but not core to the company’s strategy.
Set the way-back machine to 1999. I learned about a company that had the potential to revolutionize the way we viewed almost every electronic display. If Microvision‘s (MVIS) idea worked, images would be projected onto our retinas. To some the idea was silly, but most new ideas look that way. We’ve taken for granted the fact that our devices have to store an image, shove it onto a tiny bit of glass that commands the device’s acreage and sucks up lots of power but isn’t readily readable in strong light. Our retinas evolved to capture photons. Why not take advantage of that and lightly paint the image where it needed to go? I bought some stock.
Microvision had plenty of such ideas for image display and image capture. They had even more exotic technologies involving electro-optical materials that allowed for high-capacity switches, antennas, and bio-labs on a chip without any moving parts. Unfortunately, the company’s products were perpetually delayed (until recently, but that’s another story). Ideas were shelved as technology hit roadblocks. Maybe management guessed wrong or was too optimistic. They decided to concentrate on displays. Spinning off the electro-optical group into Lumera, a separate company, made them some money and removed a distraction without abandoning the idea.
Lumera looked good. Its technology was harder to understand, but could be just as disruptive. Instead of replacing a large fraction of the world’s displays, Lumera could dramatically enter the industrial electronics market only seen by uber-geeks. They aimed at the high-end of the high-tech industry with devices that were smaller, less likely to break down, probably cheaper and therefore probably had a higher profit margin. Maybe it was technology’s hurdles. Maybe it was management again, but the company never made enough money to survive independently.
GigOptix (GGOX.OB) stepped in. They were a tiny company with less advanced products, but they could make money from their existing products, had money, and used it to merge with Lumera. It was more like a buyout though. The name changed. The headquarters moved. The Lumera people began to disperse. Most of the Lumera product development pipeline was cancelled – except for the electro-optical switches. Every place a fiber optic cable ties into an electrical cable there’s a good chance that there’s an electro-optical switch. It’s a big market that few of us ever see but it makes downloading movies possible. They were a less passionate company but more business-like. Maybe they’d succeed. I bought some stock.
Microvision, the company that’s been working on their products for over a decade recently announced first quarter earnings of $1,100,000; less than the value of some houses in my neighborhood. GigOptix’s first quarter earnings were $7,700,000; seven times higher. Despite seven times the revenue, GigOptix’s market cap, the company’s value on the stock market, is one-fourth that of Microvision. Either GGOX.OB is very cheap, MVIS is too expensive, or something else is going on. Maybe it’s that management thing again. Maybe it’s because small companies are easily overlooked.
I think the potential is that they are both undervalued because of the fear in the market. The market is hunting for stability and safety. If it can’t trust banks, why would investors trust little companies even if they have big ideas?
Any time there is a mismatch between price and value there is an opportunity for investors. I don’t know Microvision’s or GigOptix’s futures. Microvision has issues with green lasers, cash, and credibility. GigOptix may be onto something very good, but I’ve had a harder time getting to know the non-local management. In the meantime, I have enough shares in both to become comfortable, but wish the stocks appreciated soon. I’ve got bills to pay.
Disruptive ideas don’t simply exist within business. How many protests and revolutions have begun because someone posted an idea on a church door or Twitter? I use my interest in innovation for my investing, but I also use it to track the health of my larger investment – my love for this life and this planet. There are lots of ideas out there that are the size of acorns and snowflakes which are easy to miss because more attention is paid to corporate and governmental behemoths. I suspect though, that eventually, the solutions to our big problems will come from small ideas – those upstart seedlings that are currently easy to overlook.