If science and words like “genome” and “genetic mutation” fire you up, check out opportunities in the biotechnology industry.

With billions of dollars being poured into biotech research, there has never been a better time to explore jobs in this exciting field, advises Gene Mancino, president of Blau Mancino Associates , a Princeton, NJ, search firm specializing in the life sciences.

Mancino says there’s a desperate need for virtually every scientific variation imaginable, including the hot new field called “bioinformatics”—the use of computers to process, analyze, store, and retrieve biological, and particularly genetic, information.

In the frenetic search for high-priority scientists, biotech search firms also need experienced techies.

Last year, the biotech industry employed 153,000 people compared to 79,000 in 1993, according to the Washington, DC-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

Within the biotechnology industry, high-tech workers have three main opportunities:

  1. Approach a large household-name pharmaceutical company such as Johnson & Johnson , Warner Lambert , Merck , or American Home Products , to name a few. Along with scientists, they also hire a small army of techies.
  2. Look into small, established companies like Warren, NJ-based Celgene Corporation , a pharmaceutical company that develops products that treat cancer and immunological diseases. Launched in 1987, it employs 145 people, all of whom hold scientific and clinical positions. But, it also has a handful of techies who manage the company’s IT needs, including developing new software, purchasing new equipment, and, on a day-to-day basis, maintaining and supervising all IT systems.
  3. Apply at out-of-the-gate start-ups, many of which are doing breakthrough research and are on the verge of getting venture capital funding. Some are meager operations run out of basements and garages.

“Don’t underestimate their modest beginnings,” cautions Mancino. Some are already well-positioned to be taken over by established companies.

So, what’s the best route for high-tech workers?

Mancino suggests that workers with no biotech experience should pursue small companies and start-ups. Bureaucracy-laden Fortune 500 companies may insist upon some prior biotech experience. Smaller firms, on the other hand, are where you’ll find the best opportunities.

Not only are they more inclined to hire you for your techie smarts alone, but they’ll also give you enough space and equipment to do your best work and learn the biotech industry in the bargain. What could be more exciting than working in a tiny 50-person shop that could potentially discover a cure to a deadly disease or make some breakthrough genetic discovery? Veteran employees of computer software and hardware companies holding satchels of stock options are not the only ones getting rich.

Biotech companies need seasoned technical talent with strong applications, networking, and database experience. But, unlike hiring scientific people, most heads of small biotech companies are unsure of their IT needs because they don’t understand the IT field, according to Celgene’s COO Sol J. Barer.

“The biotech industry has traditionally not been an employer of IT people,” he said.

That’s your cue to be “proactive,” as Barer describes it. “We don’t understand the IT culture, so it’s a lot harder reaching out to find the right people who can meet our needs.”

Barer’s advice: “Don’t assume small companies know exactly what IT skills they need. Still, most biotech companies have pretty much the same IT needs. They know they need IT people to run their technology but they don’t understand their problems well enough to find the right talent to remedy them.”

The ideal person is the one who can ask intelligent questions in plain English, suggest solutions, and then explain how they would be implemented.

“We need people who bring a wide breadth of IT experience to apply to the work we’re doing,” Barer said.

A good way to start doing some homework on the biotech industry is by visiting the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Web site .
Have you made the leap to the biotech industry? How does it compare to a traditional or a dot-com business? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.