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Hot Stocks: Capital Advantages
Comments () | Published July 1, 2008
70 cents a share and the company was $35 million in debt, on the verge of going under. It was then a women’s-health company whose leading product was Estrasorb, an FDA-approved method of delivering estrogen to relieve menopausal symptoms, a product with little demand: Women didn’t see applying the product through the skin as a big advantage over taking a pill.

Buried inside the Malvern, Pennsylvania, company was a hidden asset being tested in Rockville—a vaccine technology called Virus-Like Particle, or VLP. With this technology, the company could create a mimicking version of a particular virus that could be used as a vaccine to trigger an immune response without giving the recipient the disease, thus protecting the person from future infection. The company has two VLP-based vaccines, one to treat the pandemic influenza virus and another to treat the seasonal flu virus. The pandemic-flu vaccine is in a Phase II clinical trial, and the seasonal-flu vaccine will enter Phase II trials this year.

The company, now based in Rockville, is also working to develop a vaccine for shingles and for another major infectious disease it can’t yet disclose. The infrastructure and equipment for producing such vaccines normally is expensive, but Novavax, with $5 million worth of off-the-shelf machinery developed by GE Healthcare, has replicated a production line that could have cost $100 million.

ObjectVideo (private). Raul Fernandez, the wunderkind who founded Proxicom, the Internet service firm he sold to Dimension Data, is now running ObjectVideo, a software company that makes surveillance cameras smarter. The software was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research-and-development arm of the Defense Department, and is used by the government to monitor the northern border of the United States. The software uses information recorded on cameras to alert users to suspicious activities.

Reston-based ObjectVideo has expanded its commercial use to monitoring entryways, property boundaries, school grounds, rooftops, doors, and delivery and loading areas. The analytic software can be programmed to trigger a reaction based on specific unwanted behavior, and that intelligence can be sent anywhere. The video-surveillance technology costs less than human security. ObjectVideo doesn’t make the camera or other hardware, only the software. Currently, 24 camera manufacturers use ObjectVideo software in cameras in airports, banks, power plants, and industrial facilities all over the world; a third of the software is sold in Asia.

SquareLoop (private). Soon after a Scud missile was launched during the first Gulf War, the military pretty much knew the target it was headed for. What US forces lacked was the ability to warn soldiers in that area without revealing their location to the enemy. Mitre Corporation has developed technology that can geographically target text messages. With this targeted-messaging technology, the military can warn only those at risk without revealing their location. Reston-based SquareLoop has licensed this technology for civilian use.

Among SquareLoop’s customers is an insurance company that will provide its customers with precise traffic reporting—so drivers on I-66, say, can be warned of accidents directly ahead. Restaurants could advise nearby drivers that tables are available for the 6:30 seating. Students in a building targeted by a gunman could be warned and given safety instructions. Firefighters downwind from a toxic draft can be alerted, while firefighters elsewhere receive a different message.

SquareLoop’s messaging technology doesn’t track people; it sends messages to geographically targeted mobile phones and other handheld devices, locating them via cell towers. CEO Tom Stroup says the company provides e-mail and voicemail alerts in partnership with other companies. SquareLoop messages have no character limits and can even include pictures. Police could receive a suspect’s photograph with a warning to be on the lookout for him. Because messages are encrypted, healthcare workers could be sent the confidential medical records of accident victims on the way to the hospital.

SureScripts (private). Created and owned by the two trade groups that represent chain and independent pharmacies, SureScripts aims to eliminate paper in the prescription process. The Institute of Medicine believes that electronic prescriptions will reduce the 7,000 deaths and 1.5 million injuries caused each year by medication errors—some the result of physicians’ poor handwriting, some of drug names that look or sound similar, and some of the prescribing physician’s being unaware of other drugs the patient is taking.

Alexandria-based SureScripts runs the network that carries e-prescriptions from the physician’s computer to the pharmacy’s and allows the sharing of prescription and insurance information so doctors can determine which medication is best for the patient. Pharmacies pay a fee for each prescription routed over the network.

SureScripts believes electronic prescriptions also reduce costs, noting that the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan has saved millions of dollars since it began using e-prescriptions by increasing the use of generics and reducing administrative costs. E-prescriptions reduce paperwork in doctor’s offices. And with patient consent, the secure electronic network provides physicians with information about drug costs, whether a generic exists, and other medications that have been prescribed to the patient.

E-prescribing has grown from 700,000 prescriptions in 2004 to a projected 100 million this year. A stumbling block to its use is that controlled substances such as the painkiller Vicodin are not eligible and many prescribers refuse to deal with two different processes, both paper and electronic. Maryland has consistently been among the nation’s top e-prescribing states, and the practice is spreading rapidly in Virginia and the District.

TNS (Nasdaq: TNSI). TNS was created in the early 1990s to transmit credit-card transactions for authorization. The company lumbered along until founder Jack McDonnell realized that the secure high-speed data-communications network he’d built had other uses. Today the company has four divisions able to move money, voice, and information in real time around the world.

Reston-based TNS still provides services to the point-of-sale card-processing industry. The financial-service division, started in 1997, provides communications links between financial-service companies, for which speed is of the essence because markets react to information instantaneously. The telecom service division, among other tasks, passes calls made on cable systems to phone-company customers. Providing these same services, the company’s international division accounts for 44 percent of TNS’s profits and is growing at 15 percent a year. CEO Henry Graham attributes the higher margins on international sales to customers’ preference for reliability and service over savings. Overall, TNS’s gross margins for the first quarter of 2008 were 52 percent—up by 5 percent from a year ago, causing TNS stock to double over the same period.

Trex (NYSE: TWP). Although Trex has a world-class product, employs perhaps the best distribution system in the building-products industry, and is, like Xerox, a brand that has become a generic term for wood-alternative decking, its stock performance has been lousy. From a 12-month high of $22.40, the stock tumbled to $5.34.

Six months ago, turnaround veteran Ron Kaplan was brought in to fix that situation. He has reduced overhead, slimmed management, increased output (producing more with less, he says), and addressed quality issues, in part by spending $50 million to improve Trex products to “best in class” among wood-alternative decking. If it all works out, Kaplan will have produced one of the most dramatic turnarounds in area business history.

Kaplan says one reason he took the job was because he knew the product. His own home “has the largest and most beautiful Trex deck in central Pennsylvania,” he says. Trex’s composite planking is made from recycled plastic grocery bags and sawdust. Seven of every ten plastic bags recycled through in-store collection programs wind up in a Trex deck, fence, or other outdoor-living product. Because competitors use more-expensive polyethylene pellets, Kaplan says, Trex is the low-cost producer and more environmentally friendly.

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