In the wake of an energy sector downturn, Wyoming’s state and local leaders committed themselves to creating a more resilient economy.
The multi-pronged approach includes new strategies from the Wyoming Business Council and a 20-year governor’s initiative dubbed Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming, or ENDOW.
Together, business leaders, government experts and local citizens are building a road map for adding value to Wyoming’s vast natural resources; increasing exports and foreign investment; retaining and expanding small businesses; bolstering quality communities; growing innovation, entrepreneurship and finance; and attracting and training the workforce of today and tomorrow.
“We are actively engaged with industry to understand their needs,” said Shawn Reese, chief executive officer of the Business Council. “Then we can bring their concerns to the state and see if there is a way to address them.”
As part of those efforts to understand where industry stands now and what it needs to grow, business leaders and government experts have focused on small, but successful, examples around the state.
Jackson, a small tourist town in remote northwest Wyoming, provides one look at how Wyoming, despite its scattered and small population, can create a thriving tech sector.
Quietly, a small group of manufacturing and technology firms south of downtown Jackson have built a symbiotic relationship with each other and the local school district. They are providing talented, underemployed residents an opportunity to bring their skills to bear on groundbreaking technology like minesweeping robots and sensors built to test the strength of high-tech materials.
Fifteen years ago, Bob Viola’s employer told him to pack his bags and move to Florida.
Instead, the Wyoming native started robotics engineering firm Square One Systems Design in his garage.
With the help of Wyoming’s business resources – like a Business Council grant to retrofit a warehouse on the southern outskirts of Jackson and the expertise of the Wyoming Small Business Innovative Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Institute – Viola now counts institutions as varied as the Brookhaven National Laboratory and the U.S. Army as clients.
“People come to us when they have a need for automation, for robotics,” said Viola, founder and director of engineering at Square One. “They may need something performed more efficiently, or faster, or, as is the case here, when they need to perform actions in a dangerous, hazardous environment.”
Viola motioned past Square One’s gravel parking lot where a six-legged robot the size of a small dog plodded along a patch of dirt. The machine was sniffing out mines.
Transmitters and receivers implanted in each of the machine’s six feet, pulsed radar signals into the ground, feeding a three-dimensional picture of what lay beneath to the laptop screens of two Square One engineers seated under a canopy of pine trees.
The many parts of Square One’s “Tri-Sphere” robot are manufactured just down the road at GH20 Machining by Drew Gillingwators and his team.
Gillingwators used to run a precision machining shop building parts for semiconductors in Silicon Valley.
“You can run really fast there and get nowhere,” Gillingwators said. “It was time to get back to the mountains.”
The Jackson lifestyle fit Gillingwators and his wife, a Jackson native, well.
He opened GH20 Machining specifically to cater to the needs of Square One. He started with a single CNC machine, a manual mill and a manual lathe.
“I sensed they were growing and needed precision machine parts, so I jumped in with both feet and opened a high-tech machine shop,” Gillingwators said.
GH20 has grown in both the amount of equipment and the number of workers. Many of those employees have worked at several high-tech firms in Jackson, including Epsilon Technologies
Epsilon Technologies builds equipment used in research by aerospace firms, construction companies, universities and more.
All the work to build that equipment, from the design and engineering, to the production and the testing, is done in Jackson. This small company is one of the largest suppliers of its kind. Much of their material is also supplied by GH20.
“The magic recipe is having each other to provide work for one another,” Gillingwators said. “We’ve all found our place in the puzzle as far as what we can do to keep our businesses busy and keep each other doing what we enjoy.”
That interconnectedness has meant fluid movement of employees between companies as workers seek to build their skills in different arenas. That freedom of movement pollinates ideas across each business, much like oft-envied concentrations of tech firms in places like North Carolina, Massachusetts and California.
As each company finds new success and grows, more former residents have been able to find their way back home, too.
Epsilon, Square One and GH20 have each brought home workers who grew up in Jackson and went away to earn advanced degrees in fields like mechanical engineering. Thanks to this cluster of companies, those Wyomingites could come home, get jobs and be near their families.
“That’s a pretty amazing thing for them to be able to return to a small town like this in a rural state and be able to apply their degrees in a place they want to live,” Gillingwators said.
The executives at Epsilon, Square One and GH20 also take it as a point of pride to ensure today’s students also receive the education, training and internships needed to come back home to work someday.
Anna Sullivan is one of those interns. After participating in a high school program that led to her conducting an experiment for NASA in microgravity, she attended Cal Polytechnic.
Now, she’s back in Jackson working at Epsilon.
“My experience brainstorming, designing, prototyping and testing an experiment for NASA while still in high school definitely gave me a head start for college,” Sullivan said. “Working at Epsilon, I’ve been able to test and design custom products and write manuals for their use. This has been a great experience to be able to have and to come back to Jackson and enjoy all of this.”
More Jackson High School students are set to follow in her path, thanks to programs like the robotics club.
The Jackson robotics club is larger than its football program, explained Patience Lamb, a senior at Jackson High School. Each year, the club competes to build from scratch a robot that can complete various tasks like navigating obstacle courses, shooting balls through a hoop or climbing a rope. They have six weeks to design a robot, raise money to buy the materials, machine each part and write the code that will control the robot’s actions.
“Last year, we went to Indianapolis for the international competition. We were in their football stadium with thousands of people cheering us on,” Lamb said. “It was a rush.”
All of this – the highly-educated students, the veteran engineers and manufacturers who mentor them and the interwoven cluster of high-tech firms who have a vested interest in each other’s success – are representative of the new economy, according to Viola.
“That type of interaction is what distinguishes these tech ecosystems – the connections and interactions between different companies is what helps us navigate things like patent protections or contract procurement or the regulatory environment,” Viola said. “The Department of Workforce Services, the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Business Council, they’ve all been instrumental to our development, but so have resources like Epsilon or GH20.”
Wyoming’s small population can make it easier to develop connections. Industry veterans pass knowledge to new entrepreneurs, which leads to more companies establishing roots. Those companies help nurture and train today’s students, creating a pipeline of workers vested in the community.
“The people who choose to live in Wyoming are, by their nature, unconventional thinkers. They’re risk takers. Those intangible qualities are essential for the success of companies like mine,” Viola said. “There are too many smart people with too much to offer here in Wyoming to squander that potential.”
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