Where to look for the UK's answer to Google

Many investors got their fingers burnt five years ago, but now, says David Prosser it's time to click again
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The Independent Online

So much, then, for the bursting of the technology bubble. While it's true that the frenzied clamour for all things internet came to an abrupt end at the end of 1999 - sparking a three-year slide on US and European stock markets - there were nevertheless plenty of survivors of the collapse.

Not least, Google's Californian neighbour eBay, which has agreed to pay $4.1bn for Skype, the internet telephony business. The online auction house, which has a similar market capitalisation to Google, is another giant company that has managed to take off despite investors' cynicism about technology, media and telecoms (TMT) stocks.

Yet while Google and eBay have proved that it is possible for TMT companies to make money and grow rapidly, few others have followed in their wake. In 1999, any company with ".com" in its business plan was able to get funding - yet by 2001, it was impossible for high-tech ventures to find backers.

Six years after the TMT collapse, however, some seasoned technology investors say sentiment is finally changing - and that now could be the right time to start searching for the next Google. "In May, we went out marketing to investors for the first time since 1998," says Polar Capital Technology's Brian Ashford-Russell, who has been investing in high-tech companies for more than 20 years. "My guess is that people should be significantly overweight in technology by the end of the third quarter next year."

Ashford-Russell argues that, following the collapse of both the previous technology investment bubbles in the Sixties and Eighties, it took six-and-a-half years for a turning point to arrive. This time around, there are good reasons to think investors who bet on similar event horizons will be proved right.

For one thing, technology company valuations have fallen 25 per cent over the past year - while earnings have improved, share prices are down sharply. This is one reason why merger and acquisition activity is now increasing. Equally, there has been a shake-out among technology companies - the weakest have disappeared while those remaining have cut costs and built up cash.

"It's always a good sign that you have reached the bottom of the market when you see companies consolidating," says Michael Bourne, the manager of Finsbury Technology Investment Trust. "The prospects for Europe's technology sector are much better than people think. While there is no blockbuster company as yet, there are fantastic skill-sets out there."

Hugh Grieves, of SG Asset Management, says the key to recovery is rising demand. "Several new-technology product-cycles are likely to accelerate corporate spending in 2006," he advises. "Also, the consumer is becoming a major part of the technology sector as the digital media revolution gathers pace, plus emerging markets such as China and India are becoming major buyers."

There are risks. Any economic slowdown at home or overseas would hit technology companies hard. And performance has yet to pick up - JP Scandalios, the manager of the Franklin Technology Fund, says that during the first half of the year, share prices fell in 17 of the 18 technology sub-sectors he monitors.

Even so, Scandalios announces he is another bull. "Subtle technology trends underneath the surface are creating superior growth prospects for select, well-positioned companies," he explains.

Finding those companies is a question of identifying key themes. For example, in the Eighties and Nineties, the dramatic fall in the cost of desktop PCs led to a demand for networking technology - and ultimately the development of the internet. Now the collapsing cost of bandwidth could trigger a similar growth in demand for communications applications.

Fund managers are exploring a range of themes, including wireless internet access, digital radio and television, third-generation mobile telephony, semi-conductors, security and surveillance, alternative energy and healthcare. The Holy Grail in each sector is a firm that will eventually translate huge potential into profits and growth.

"Not every company will make it but there are a lot of under-appreciated, early leaders in each field," says Bourne. "This is the kind of opportunity that excited me, rather than something like Google, where frankly your guess is as good as mine about whether it's really worth all those billions of dollars."

But Ashford-Russell is also concerned that investors make the right choices. "One of the dangers is that you get stuck with the likes of Microsoft, Dell and Cisco, the leaders of the last generation of hi-tech companies, rather than finding the next leaders," he says.

"I don't think the companies you bought into in 1998 or 1999, say, are the ones that are most likely to make a big splash over the next five years."

Ten companies from the next hi-tech generation

AMINO

Many believe internet television could be the next big online development. Amino Technologies began shipping set-top boxes to US internet TV players in 2003.

BANGO

This firm helps companies that have digital content for sale to market their wares, so they can build users more quickly.

DETICA

"In the real world, security and surveillance devices are clearly going to be increasingly in demand," says Ashford-Russell. That's why he owns shares in Detica, an IT consultancy that specialises in anti-fraud solutions for financial institutions.

GRESHAM

"Gresham Computing is well-placed to deliver the software that banks need to communicate with each other," says Bourne. Last week, the company announced that HSBC was the first institution to sign up as a provider of currency information for its Real-Time Nostro clearing and settlement system.

HSBC

Richard Hunter, the head of UK equities at stockbroker Hargreaves Lansdown, says any portfolio of technology companies needs some more stable constituents. HSBC is leading the way on internet technology, with 20 million online customers.

IMAGINATION

Bourne says: "Imagination Technologies has pioneered the technology that powers digital radios, which are becoming increasingly popular in the UK - the company has a 60- to 70 per cent share in that market." The shares were marked down over the summer when Imagination announced a fund-raising exercise, but trading is improving.

INNOVISION RESEARCH

Wouldn't playing golf be easier if each ball carried a chip that could tell you where it was? Innovision is a leader in the field. One profitable area is likely to be technology that can turn mobile phones into payment devices.

MONSTERMOB

"Wireless internet access is at the point where it is going to take off and digital content is a good play on that," says Ashford-Russell. Monstermob is already in profit.

NEXT

Hunter points out that a third of all orders placed with retailer Next's popular Directory catalogue division are now online.

NXT

"NXT has announced lots of partnership deals, though it is difficult to work out whether it is an engineering nightmare to deliver the technology into products," says Bourne.

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