Gavilan’s new frontier: bioscience

Rich Gillis with the Gavilan College Small Business Development

Forget about garlic, motorcycles and mushrooms. Out with strip
Forget about garlic, motorcycles and mushrooms. Out with strip malls. No one is advocating that hard-line approach, but there is a new economic player in the area with plans that broach the depths of science and stretch as far south as Mexico.

The player is Gavilan College.

With a state budget nearly $35 billion short, a stock market 3,000 points off in the Dow and record layoffs in once bustling Silicon Valley, the time couldn’t be better for the college to take a lead role in revitalizing the region’s economy.

“A well-educated workforce is the utmost important factor in convincing new businesses to set up shop,” said Bill Lindsteadt, executive director of the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation.

Lindsteadt should know. Besides recruiting a stream of box-store retailers, such as Costco, Lowe’s Home Improvement and Target to Gilroy, Lindsteadt is actively involved with trying to land a high-tech Canadian firm and other bioscience companies.

The goal is nothing short of turning South Valley into the bio-tech answer to high-tech Silicon Valley. And the goal requires Gavilan College to take as strong a lead in recruitment efforts as the economic development wings.

“We think bioscience (in South Valley) would complement everything that’s going on in Silicon Valley,” Lindsteadt said.

From training high school and its own students in bioscience to providing seminars and workshops for professionals, Gavilan College is in position to make itself the mecca of bioscience training for the region.

Enter Rich Gillis of the Gavilan College Small Business Development Center, armed with a skeleton staff of two program specialists and a receptionist, and funded by federal, state and local grants.

Last fall, the SBDC took a big step toward its quest for bioscience supremacy when it was awarded a five-year grant worth nearly $900,000. The funding is supposed to help make Gilroy and South County the bioscience headquarters for 17 counties, stretching from San Jose to Monterey to Merced.

“This gives us a tremendous amount of credibility,” Gillis said. “We believe we’re in front of the curve here.”

What would make others believers is if Gillis and Gavilan College can successfully establish an incubator business of bioscience firms.

The incubator format puts several businesses of generally the same type in one building. The companies share the same support staff and they would be able to use the college’s group of consultants for business planning.

According to Gillis, 80 percent of business start-ups fail. But when part of an incubator project, 80 percent succeed.

The Canadian firm, which Lindsteadt and Gillis will not name, could be the cornerstone of such an incubator. The firm already has used the SBDC’s expertise to finalize a business plan and financing package. The company is trying to receive a business loan now.

“If they get the money, they’re here,” Gillis said.

Since there is no patent, mum is the word when it comes to the product the company has developed and hopes to mass produce in the region.

Gillis said the product is a type of fire retardant that would have implications in protecting military and rescue personnel from terrorist attacks, but declined to give any specifics.

While Gavilan College won’t play a role in developing the product, the college could become the training center for the bioscience technicians that work for the company.

“These are jobs that average $30,000 starting salaries. We’re not talking minimum wage or $9-an-hour jobs,” Gillis said. “There is nothing wrong with working at a McDonald’s, but what I’m after is getting these youngsters a livable wage.”

In the Bay Area, bioscience companies are enrolling 11th-graders in programs that train students for a career as a bio-tech manufacturer. Now it’s the valley’s turn.

Gillis has held meetings with Gilroy Unified School District Superintendent Edwin Diaz regarding a cooperative program between Gavilan and Gilroy High School. Nothing concrete has been established yet, but at the very least Gillis hopes to see GHS science courses add a bio-tech theme to existing science curricula.

As for bioscience training at Gavilan, curricula also needs to be added.

“It’s fair to say we’re a little behind the curve right now with that,” Gavilan College President Steve Kinsella said. “Our curriculum right now offers students the chance to transfer to a University of California or Cal-State school. It doesn’t have a specific focus on bioscience or computer science.”

For Lindsteadt, specific focus would be a good thing.

“I would tell them to focus on robotics and wireless communication, too,” he said. “Those are the things that will revitalize Silicon Valley, I predict.”

For now, bioscience seems the more likely focus, especially given the implications it has for agriculture, which is still an economic mainstay in the region.

Bioscientists are developing methods to alter the DNA of various agriculture products so that crops are, for instance, more resistant to disease.

If a specific curriculum for bioscience is not set up, Kinsella said the school would at least establish programs businesses could turn to for employee and management training.

Known as contract education, similar programs are offered at Gavilan, and Kinsella wants to see more.

“These are typically very profitable for schools,” he said.

The programs are profitable because Gavilan can charge a fair market price for the services instead of being hampered by limits the state puts on regular courses.

Gavilan College’s role in strengthening the area’s economy isn’t restricted to south Santa Clara and San Benito counties. It’s gone to Mexico, too.

The SBDC is a California-Mexico Trade Assistance Center, a by-product of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The goal is to develop awareness of the benefits and opportunities of conducting business in Mexico. The center’s Web site provides an online start-up kit for importing and exporting, as well as a directory of buyers and suppliers.

“We’re probably better known in Mexico than we are in California,” Gillis said.

If statistics are any indication, Gavilan and the SBDC have done a good job spreading the word.

From 2000 to 2002, the SBDC served 1,328 clients with nearly 9,000 hours of counseling from the group’s 10 consultants.

The SBDC estimates it has created and retained more than 700 jobs in Santa Clara and San Benito counties during the same timespan by providing training and workshops for small business owners.

The ultimate sign of a business development center’s success is the amount of money it helps its clients receive for starting or expanding their companies. Since 2000, SBDC has helped generate about $9.5 million in loans.

“We’re proud of these numbers,” Gillis said.

Gavilan College does not only focus on multi-million-dollar business opportunities, it has a strong presence in vocational and technical training, too. Aviation, computer graphics and welding are among the professions the college prepares students for.

In recent years, Gavilan’s cosmetology department has seen 100 students per semester enroll in courses from manicuring and pedicuring to hair styling and coloring.

“From head to toe, this program has it covered,” instructor Bill Mills said. “We train students so they can pass the state licensing exam, and when you pass that there are 32 professions you can go into.”

Mills, who has been teaching in the cosmetology department since 1970, two years after it opened, comes from a family of cosmetologists. He said cosmetology can be used to supplement a household income or provide a comfortable living.

Cosmetology student Tina Eachus, a 33-year-old San Jose resident, agreed.

“By taking these courses, so many doors open for you,” she said.

Eachus’s goal is to work as a stylist for a few years and then gravitate into the field’s educational opportunities. She would like to, represent a particular line of cosmetic products and teach demonstrations at schools such as Gavilan.

“I had an uncle who was a millionaire from this business,” Mills said. “It takes time to build clientele, but once you do, the sky can be the limit.”

For more information, find Gavilan College online at Visit the Gavilan College Small Business Development Center at