The Value Play Backed by 150 Patents

You could take a stab at Medivation, Inc. (Nasdaq: MDVN), whose progress on Alzheimer’s treatment has sent its shares soaring three-fold since March. But then there’s OncoGenix Pharmaceuticals Inc. (Nasdaq: OGXI), whose shares famously fell more than -30% in short order (mostly in one day right before Christmas) as investors expressed disappointment over a deal involving its lead cancer drug candidate.

To be sure, trying to find the next hot biotech or pharmaceutical stock is a high-risk/high-reward gambit. A safer way to play the trend is to find companies that provide the right tools to the research teams that work at those companies.

Luminex Corp. (Nasdaq: LMNX), which makes diagnostic tools for genetic analysis, drug discovery, clinical diagnostics and biomedical research, offers exposure to a wide range of medical technology trends.

The strength of Luminex’s technology lies in its ability to rapidly analyze massive amounts of data. The human genome, for example, has more than 30,000 genes and more than one million unique proteins. Although machines have been speedily analyzing medical data since the late 1980s, many of those earlier systems yielded inaccurate results. In effect, speed and accuracy were at odds with each other.

Newer systems, such as Luminex’s xMap system, ended that trade-off by offering highly-accurate and speedy results. Luminex sells its gear to research labs, which also end up buying a host of consumables used in the testing process. The company also sells its software to other industry players, which incorporate the xMap engine into their hardware. That technology is protected by more than 50 patents, with an additional 100 patents pending. Many of the company’s partners license its technology, which has yielded a rising stream of royalties.

As royalties and consumables comprise an ever-larger chunk of sales, Luminex’s gross margins have been steadily expanding, from 61% in 2006 to 68% in 2008.

Before the recent downturn, Luminex made great strides in establishing its technology platform in a range of medical research specialties. Sales grew at least +25% per annum in the four years ended in 2008, but the economic slowdown in 2009 has likely forced that growth rate down to around +15% in the past year. The company continued to snag new customers at a decent clip, but many existing customers slowed their pace of research, which led to a drop in sales of consumables. The slowing top-line pushed shares down steadily, and they now trade roughly -40% below their peak in October 2008.

And that spells opportunity for value investors, as Luminex looks set to get back to +20% or greater annual growth. Thanks to raising $75 million in fresh capital about a year ago, the company’s R&D labs have been aggressively developing new products, most notably a 3-D mapping system that is just reaching customers. R&D spending, which was slightly less than $10 million in 2006, exceeded $20 million in 2008. The company is also tapping new markets, notably in Asia. An upcoming IPO for its Rules-Based Medicine subsidiary could also boost shares, if that offering is well received.

Luminex’s board of directors, which is obviously privy to the company’s sales and marketing plans, recently expressed confidence that growth will rebound, through their collective purchase of more than $400,000 in stock on the open market. This marks the first significant insider buying at the company in nearly five years. In the summer of 2004, a range of insiders bought stock at around $6. Two years later, those insiders became heavy sellers, as the stock approached the $20 mark. (Insider buying is just one of several “profit catalysts” that can send a stock to the moon. Before you invest, make sure you identify a clear profit catalyst. Or better yet, look for several profit catalysts — like these 10 stocks.)

Of perhaps greatest appeal to investors who are growing anxious about this heady rally, shares of Luminex sport a beta of just 0.51. Beta is a useful way to gauge volatility and determine whether shares move in tandem with an underlying benchmark. A beta of 1.0 means a stock marches in lock-step with the benchmark index, while anything above or below 1.0 implies the stock typically moves faster or slower. Luminex’s beta means the stock has been somewhat neglected in this recent rally, but also means that it should stand its ground if the broader market sells off.

Fourth-quarter results are likely to be decent at best for this medical diagnostics company, but the broader outlook for all of 2010 – and beyond – should remain bright.