Until recently, I was convinced that low-income housing tax credits and synthetic leases would be the most complex subjects that I'd ever have to cover for NREI. Then along came our cover story on biotechnology, a field where breaking down the DNA sequence of the human genome is all in a day's work. More than 200,000 people are employed in the biotech industry today, working on such innovations as cancer-fighting tomatoes. Biotech industry consultants say the workforce could grow to more than 400,000 by 2011.

Biotech tenants' heavy dependence on support from the federal government, venture capitalists and research institutions coupled with their highly customized space needs present unique challenges for commercial real estate professionals. Underwriting a loan on a standard office building with a solid credit tenant, such as BellSouth or IBM, is far easier than underwriting a loan on a building occupied by a start-up biotech firm. Keep in mind that it can take six to 12 years to bring a new biotech plant variety to market at a cost of $50 million to $300 million, according to Bio Economic Research Associates.

So, if you're a developer looking to build biotech space, what's the blueprint for success? First, monitor the industry closely and find out what's driving it by obtaining the research reports from the investment banks and the venture capitalists, or peruse the Web, says Nancy Kelley, senior vice president and director of life sciences at Spaulding & Slye Colliers in Boston.

If, after they do their homework, developers still want to enter the marketplace, they should either partner with a company that has experience in the sector, or hire a development manager to steer them around the potential pitfalls.

“This is not an industry for the inexperienced. It is extremely complicated technologically,” says Kelley. “It requires very specialized knowledge of the real estate market as well as the product. There are different risks in this industry as a result of the underlying fundamentals.”

The stereotype of the biotech industry is that it is a field made up exclusively of research outfits hatched out of college biology departments by enterprising professors with no credit history, meager financial resources and little business experience. But biotech falls under the bigger umbrella of life sciences, a complex continuum that begins with R&D and extends to the patient's bedside. Along that continuum are the biotech start-ups, big pharmaceutical companies, academic medical centers, private research institutes, the patent and licensing process and much more.

The seasoned professionals who toil in the biotech arena are genuinely enthusiastic, and not just because of the investment returns. Peter Calkins, senior vice president of development and planning for Forest City Commercial Group, has worked on the biotech component of University Park in Cambridge, Mass., for a decade. He still marvels at the drug discovery process that occurs inside the research buildings on campus. “It's exciting to be part of that world and provide high-quality facilities that support that environment.”

As for me, I'll never look at a tomato quite the same way again.