Jackson’s tourism economy is red hot. It brings international visitors and fuels small businesses and government coffers.
Meanwhile, the town’s tech sector is flying under the radar. The small, vibrant cluster of businesses is training students and giving them real-world experience. These companies are sharing ideas and employees and providing each other work.
Quietly, this small group of manufacturing and technology firms south of town 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. The high-paying jobs at these companies range from accountants and production line manufacturers to mechanical engineers and product designers.
These Jackson manufacturers have built a symbiotic relationship with each other and the local school district. The result is students better prepared for the careers of the future, and the creation of better paying jobs in diverse fields and a more resilient economy in the present.
Fifteen years ago, Bob Viola was presented with the choice of moving from Jackson so he could keep working for his current employer or staying and creating his own business.
“I didn’t really see myself as the entrepreneur type, it was forced upon me by necessity,” Viola said. “Now that I’m in it, though, it’s really fun.”
The Evanston native had consciously worked to make his way back to Wyoming. Now that he was integrated into the Teton Valley community, he was loath to leave.
Instead, he started Square One Systems Design. The robotics engineering firm started in a garage and had no customers. With the help of Wyoming’s business resources – like a Wyoming 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 engineers pointed at various dark blobs on the screen – pebbles, a fist-sized rock, a tree root. Finally, their quarry appeared: An inert replica of an anti-tank mine.
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. However, it wasn’t until Square One began to take off as a company that Gillingwators was able to return to the work he loved.
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. Such was the case with Wes Womack.
“Wes was my foot in the door at Epsilon Technology. He helped me gain a new client after he moved from Square One to Epsilon,” Gillingwators said.
Epsilon Technologies builds equipment designed to measure the forces being applied to materials like concrete, steel or carbon. The little green clamps are used internationally by governments, research institutions, aerospace firms and construction companies to make sure the materials they are using in their industry can withstand the crushing pressure, extreme heat, buffeting winds and other forces their products may have to endure.
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 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.
Sullivan motioned out the window of Epsilon’s headquarters at the Tetons and fall colors, then offered a smile before turning back to her work.
More Jackson High School students are set to follow in her path, thanks to programs like the robotics club. It’s a group close to Womack’s heart.
“I think robotics is fantastic, and as a fellow nerd, to help develop the youth and encourage them to pursue these kinds of jobs is, I think, a fantastic opportunity at the school,” Womack said. “I draw interns from that program whenever possible. It also gives them a leg up when they are applying to universities.”
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 connections like those easier to develop. When veterans of an industry pass their knowledge to the incoming entrepreneurs, more companies can establish roots and develop faster. When those companies work to nurture and train today's students, it provides a pipeline of workers already vested in the community.
“The people who choose to live in Wyoming are, by their nature, unconventional thinkers. They're risk takers. Those are intangible qualities that are absolutely 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 let that potential sit quiescent.”
About the Wyoming Business Council: Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity. We envision a Wyoming where industries are strong, diverse and expanding. Small business is a big deal. Communities have the highest quality of life. Wyoming is the technology center of the High Plains. Wyoming knows no boundaries. Please go to www.wyomingbusiness.org for more information.