Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

More than 500 years ago, the Renaissance ushered in an Age of Discovery that is still under way today. Externally, the Portuguese established a new route to Asia via the coast of Africa and the Spanish made contact with the Americas in the 15th century. Internally, scientists in the 17th century such as Galileo and Leeuwenhoek contributed toward developing the microscope, which made it possible to view tiny organisms for the first time.

We continue to push forward the frontiers of discovery today. Unmanned rockets now beam back photos of Mars and Jupiter, and scientists work toward creating new molecules that might someday provide a cure for cancer and other deadly diseases.

Over the past 10 years, the growing field of biotechnology has produced more than 160 new medicines that treat conditions such as cancer, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Our Motley Fool Rule Breakers investment service devotes significant resources to investing in this grand scientific endeavor. We believe that the biotech industry is still in its infancy, and our aim is to identify the great biotech companies of the current and future generations.

I liked it so much, I bought the company
My son recently asked me how old the earth was. Remembering my geology classes, I replied by saying, "It's 5 billion years old." He then asked me exactly how I knew this. And I said: "Um, it has something to do with carbon dating and fossils and, um. the scientists know all about this stuff."

So obviously, I'm a little rusty with my science. But I'm committed to learning more about science every day and have taken the plunge into the world of biotech investing. Based on the strong recommendation of our biotech analyst, Charly Travers, in the February issue of Rule Breakers and on my own reading and research, I bought shares in Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:VRTX), a firm that develops small-molecule drugs that treat HIV, hepatitis C, and cancer. The company has a substantial pipeline and boasts an impressive team of scientists, as highlighted in Barry Werth's The Billion-Dollar Molecule. I suffer no delusions about my investment in this stock and am prepared for losses over the next few years. But I am bullish about this company's future, and I'm excited about the type of work it is doing.

A cross-section of the industry
According to the Biotechnology Institute, biotechnology is a $30 billion-a-year industry that has more than 370 drugs in clinical trials. These drugs target more than 200 diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and arthritis. There are 300 or so public biotech companies, and the industry is finally expected to turn a profit in 2008. In Ernst & Young's recent biotechnology report, Mike Hildreth stated, "Biotech's best days are still to come," because it is an industry "creating essential products that will continually improve the health and quality of life worldwide."

Overall returns in this industry have been strong over the past 12 years, though there's been considerable volatility in recent years. Since its inception in November 1993, the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index (NBI) has increased 242%, compared with 158% for the S&P 500 and 162% for the Nasdaq during the same period. Returns for this industry must be considered with caution, however. For every star like Genentech (NASDAQ:DNA), which is up 1,010% since 1986, there is a cash-starved operation that may not survive the 15 years it might take to bring its drug to market.

Improving the odds
At Rule Breakers, we are well aware of the risks of biotech investing. Just as the underwriters of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Mariaknew that those boats might never return to Spain, so we know that some biotech companies will crash and burn and never return a profit. That's why we have put together a first-class team of experienced biotech analysts who follow the best of the best in the industry.

Our lead analyst is Charly Travers, who earned a master's degree in pharmacology and physiology before deciding to work for the Fool as a full-time biotech research analyst. Before joining Rule Breakers, Charly selected Transkaryotic (NASDAQ:TKTX), which is up more than 100% for our Motley Fool Hidden Gems service. He has already made three official biotech recommendations for Rule Breakers, which was launched last fall.

We recently added a second analyst, Karl Thiel, who previously co-managed a small biotech mutual fund and is a regular contributor to Nature Biotechnology. Karl will be adding his insights to the newsletter, and he will help follow the 50 or so Rule Breaking biotech companies that we have identified for our community. (There are an additional 200 Rule Breakers that we closely follow from other industries.)

Perhaps most importantly, we have the input of professional researchers and biochemists who frequently contribute to our discussion boards. Many of our community members devote generous amounts of time and energy to instructing nonscientists (me included) about new drugs, regulations, and other key developments. Among the companies we are following quite closely are Geron (NASDAQ:GERN), which is a leader in the area of stem cell research, and ArQule (NASDAQ:ARQL), which is involved in small-molecule cancer therapeutics.

. One giant leap for mankind
So here we are, all of us with a chance to participate in the new discoveries of the 21st century. Sure, the risks are great, and along the way there will be huge losses as we try to anticipate which companies will be able to overcome the obstacles and achieve a breakthrough in their particular area.

But the returns might be equally huge. Since David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool and lead analyst for Rule Breakers, first selected Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) for the original Rule Breaker portfolio back in 1998, that stock has delivered 214% returns. More impressively, Celgene (NASDAQ:CELG), a company that develops cancer drugs, has earned 2,286% returns since 1990.

This is the type of performance that makes all of the uncertainty worthwhile. But this isn't all. The returns for humanity by investing in biotech defy the imagination. A cure for cancer? A cure for HIV? Biotech offers the promise of improving the well-being of billions of people around the globe. If you would like to be part of this modern-day Age of Discovery but, like me, require guidance before investing in such a complex sector, why not take a free 30-day trial to our Rule Breakers newsletter service?

John Reeves holds shares in Vertex Pharmaceuticals. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.