As more and more companies turn to research and development limited partnerships as a source of capital, Wall Street is starting to reach out further for investors. The latest wrinkle is the R&D "blind pool," which operates like a mutual fund investing in R&D partnerships.

In the past several months, brokerage houses -- including E. F. Hutton & Co. and Prudential-Bache Securities -- have formed these pools. A key factor has been the growing concern among investors and corporations that the traditional R&D limited partnerships are too risky.

"Single companies looking for partnerships were becoming wary of them because investors would put all of their eggs in one basket," says D. Bruce Merrifield, assistant secretary for productivity, technology, and innovation at the U.S. Department of Commerce. "If the basket developed a leak, the company's reputation was besmirched."

Individual investors put their dollars in the pools, just as they would in mutual funds, and the investment firm, in turn, doles out money to participating companies in need of R&D funding. Unlike the traditional R&D limited partnership structure, in which the company and investors work directly with each other, blind pools grant companies anonymity, while still offering investors the tax advantages of traditional partnerships.

"The idea in the blind pool," says Merrifield, "is that the individual can invest in a whole portfolio of companies, so that the relative risk of the venture goes way down. The investor still has the tax deductions that go along with any R&D partnership, and the return on investment is likely to be positive."

The new source of capital couldn't come at a better time. A recent study by Arthur Young & Co., the accounting firm, predicts that many small companies will turn to limited partnerships because the bearish stock market for high-technology and new issues is no longer the best answer to their capital needs. Money invested in R&D limited partnerships increased from $200 million in 1982 to nearly $1 billion in 1983, according to the Commerce Department. And Merrifield adds that the next few years will see even more action in the partnership arena, spurred on by the creation of R&D blindpools.

Merrifield, whose office provides information to companies interested in creating R&D partnerships, is now trying to develop a new investment plan that he calls "regional" blind pools. "These would be helpful in incubation projects to mobilize local resources -- as when communities are trying to create a Silicon Valley," he says. "They could be a useful funding vehicle for the incubation process. The problem with other limited partnerships is that they don't pick up at the early stage of a product, when it's a high-risk investment."