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Hot Stocks: Capital Advantages
In a not-so-great economy, Washington has some big pluses—and creative companies that are meeting all sorts of needs. Here are ten worth watching. Plus, how our expert stock pickers fared this year. By Ellen McLellan, Wayne Nelson
Comments () | Published July 1, 2008

Washington is not immune to the nation’s economic woes. But according to Stephen Fuller, George Mason University’s regional economic watchdog, there hasn’t been much slowdown here. The number of jobs is still increasing, though at half the rate of recent years, and the unemployment rate is the lowest of any metropolitan area’s.

Fuller says our job growth would be higher if people elsewhere could sell their homes so they could move here.

How else is Washington different? We have more women in the workforce than anywhere else. That’s partly, Fuller says, because our high cost of living means one-income families can’t afford to live here.

Doug Poretz, founder and head of the investment and media-relations firm Qorvis, sees a bright future for the Washington economy spurred by the upcoming change of administration. He thinks the same groups that have fueled the expansion of Washington since the late 1970s—associations, lawyers, and accountants—will experience plenty of activity ignited by the changed political environment.

Real-estate magnate Joe Robert sees the distressed real-estate and debt markets as an opportunity, and he might be worth listening to: His 1990s fortune was built on the ruins of the real-estate collapse that resulted from the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis.

Local business guru Mark Ein sees promise in the number of next-generation technology companies beginning to emerge from entrepreneurs who were involved with MCI, UUNet, and AOL, and in ventures like GridPoint, a company that optimizes electrical-grid management for utilities and consumers.

AOL alumnus and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis sees the same potential in Web-centric start-ups such as Clearspring Technologies and Qloud, a digital-music company providing free music on demand from an endless library embedded in Facebook and other social networks. He also likes Tidal Wave TV, an online call-in show designed to help people break into the entertainment business.

For all of the leading-edge companies that pop up around Washington, the area’s technology sector is dominated by companies like ManTech, which solves problems for Uncle Sam. The area continues to be home to the nation’s best-educated and most geographically diverse workforce as well as to some very interesting companies such as those described here.

Clearspring (private). Let’s say you go to the Clear Channel radio Web site to keep up with the latest music, to MSNBC’s site to keep tabs on the election, and to NationalGeographic.com to see the “photo of the day.” McLean-based Clearspring simplifies the process with its network of digital-information suitcases called widgets, which easily allow you to put content you care about on your personal home page or blog, where the information is automatically updated. The technology also lets your friends add these bits of news and information to their own blogs or social-networking sites in seconds.

Because content providers can sell ads or advertise their own products and services, the widget network allows an advertiser’s message to spread across the Web, creates a channel for marketers to engage in continuous conversations with consumers, and lets users establish themselves as advocates for their favorite products, movies, TV shows, and brands.

Users pay no fee for the service. Fees are paid by publishers such as CBS, Turner Broadcasting, and NBC Universal as well as advertisers including Snickers and Honda that use widgets as a brand-building tool geared to targeted audiences whose interests are determined based on the content channeled to their personal sites. The company also partners with such social Web sites as MySpace, iGoogle, Blogger, Digg, and Facebook on which widgets can be pasted with one click. CEO Hooman Radfar believes that his company is pushing the next generation of the Web.

ManTech (Nasdaq: MANT). When George Pedersen cofounded ManTech in 1968, its missions for the Navy were to develop computer simulation to track Soviet submarines and create ways of deploying US submarines so they were undetectable. Today Fairfax-based ManTech is a public company with 7,400 employees in 40 countries, but its missions still have to do with defending America. ManTech doesn’t manufacture products—its highly technical, security-cleared workforce puts together software and technology packages to solve tough problems that the Pentagon, intelligence community, and other government agencies throw its way, nearly all of them classified.

Much of the company’s work has to do with secure communications, such as exchanging information among embassies and getting timely information from headquarters to troops on the ground, and what Pedersen describes as forensic analysis—determining how someone could intercept a transmission, detecting that interception, and foiling it. Pedersen calls the company a think tank, but the wars on terrorism and drugs are big business. In 2002, when ManTech went public, its annual revenue was $500 million. This year it anticipates revenue of $1.8 billion; the stock reflects that growth, having appreciated by 60 percent in the last 12 months and 20 percent in the year to date.

MiddleBrook Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: MBRK). Dr. Ed Rudnic was puzzled by the reaction of bacteria to antibiotics—he wondered if the drugs would work better if the timing of their delivery was altered. Seeking an answer had value, so he founded MiddleBrook Pharmaceuticals in Germantown to do just that.

The accepted treatment for strep throat was to take penicillin every six hours. Rudnic thought there might be periods during the day that the bacteria were not affected by the antibiotic, so MiddleBrook developed a once-a-day treatment that released the drug in bursts throughout the day. In 2000 the company found that bacteria exposed to antibiotics in sequential bursts or pulses were killed more efficiently than those exposed to the standard regimen. But the first clinical trials of the delivery system in 2006 failed; Rudnic was forced to lay off employees. Convinced that it was on the right track, the company plowed on, eventually determining that the trial’s failure was caused by treating the bacteria over seven days rather than the typical ten.

Early this year, the FDA approved MiddleBrook’s once-a-day Amoxicillin. MiddleBrook had previously purchased Keflex—used to treat skin, respiratory, ear, and other infections—from Eli Lilly. The company remains convinced that a portfolio of drugs can be developed based on its finding that its pulsed-delivery system is more effective in killing bacteria.

NinjaTickets.com (private). Forget StubHub or Ticketmaster—if you want the cheapest ticket to an event, go to NinjaTickets.com. The Potomac company’s software mines the Internet for tickets to events and rates them by desirability, allowing you to see and buy the least expensive best seat available.

NinjaTickets currently scans the top six online ticket stores—eBay shortly will be the seventh—for the information. It soon will be able to scan an even deeper database, but the service is already impressive for a company launched last October with funding from family and friends and whose legal work was done by the grandfather and parents of one of the founders.

Twentysomethings Cliff Mark and Dan Marsh created NinjaTickets to take advantage of what they saw as an inefficient Internet marketplace that provided no practical way of comparing tickets. More than $16 billion worth of tickets a year is available on NinjaTickets now, and the company expects that amount to double in the next year as tickets from auctions, classified ads, and other sources are added.

The name NinjaTickets was conceived in an Eastern Shore swimming pool and, Mark confesses, seemed so bad that it would be impossible to forget.

Novavax (Nasdaq: NVAX). In August 2005 when Rahul Singhvi took over as CEO, Novavax stock was trading at

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles