It’s hard to keep up with, and sometimes even harder to understand, exactly what Alex Philp and his team of computer programmers do in their ordinary office just off Higgins Avenue on the Hip Strip.
For starters, know this: Their work is high-tech, it’s innovative and it’s on the cutting edge of the most advanced computing and geospatial information technology in the world.
Know, too, that their work is bringing unheard-of recognition to Philp’s Missoula companies – and to Montana.
A piece of that recognition came earlier this month when, during a small ceremony, Philp brought home the IBM Beacon Award for Outstanding Information Management Innovation by one of his off-shoot companies, TerraEchos.
The award was well-deserved for his Philp and the 10-year-old geospatial information technology company he started in his home.
That initial startup blossomed from his time at the University of Montana, and has led Philp to ever-more computing technology advancements since.
Described by many as “high-energy” and others as a “technology genius,” Philp has poured those attributes into his companies. His labor of love and genius has spawned three companies and millions of dollars in investments.
Philp’s main focus now is on TerraEchos’ big data analytics technology, Kairos. Named after the Greek word “know now,” Kairos has the potential to launch Philp’s company further into unknown territory, leading the newest computing technology sector of big data.
Part of Philp’s work in big data led him to forge a strong and lucrative bond with information technology giant IBM. In March, Philp and his team were awarded IBM’s most prestigious award, the 2012 Beacon award.
Earlier this month, IBM’s Jeremy Clement presented the award to the entire TerraEchos team, noting that Terra is the only Montana-based company with IBM premier partner status and the first in the state to win the Beacon. Much of that has to do with Philp’s dynamic leadership.
“You sit down and talk to him in a room for an hour and it’s just the enthusiasm he has, it’s contagious,” Clement said. “I can tell you the IBM executives he meets with have that same level of enthusiasm after meeting with him and they are just as driven to help him succeed.”
Before he became an entrepreneur, Philp was on the fast path in academia.
He grew up in the Seattle area; his mom was a nurse and his dad was a medical doctor. Academe was in his blood and he admits, “I was born with a lot of energy.”
But he found the wilderness of Montana in 1986 when he came to work as a ranger in Glacier National Park and the Lewis and Clark National Forest after earning philosophy and history degrees from Seattle University.
Philp arrived on campus at the University of Montana to get a master’s degree in ecological history in 1997. It was then he fell in love with geography, a discipline he would mold to fit his own interests of history and landscapes and change through time.
His mentor, UM Department of Geology professor Jeff Gritzner, recalls Philp’s “700-something” page doctoral thesis on the geological history of the Lewis and Clark route as being one of the most comprehensive he’s ever seen.
Through the comparative study of the expedition with a contemporary environmental context, “he was able to determine changes and what the cause and effect of the relationship may have been,” Gritzner said.
For Philp, the tale of Lewis and Clark was the right story at the right time – because he could tell it using geospatial information technology, which allowed him to look at landscapes and topography instantaneously, as they have changed through time.
This early work and its application to the still-emerging “worldwide web” opened up a world of possibilities for Philp.
Soon, his work with GIS piqued the interest of the federal government. Around 2002, he made the switch to the private sector.
“This was right after 9/11,” Philip said. “I took what I knew and who I knew and launched GCS.”
While he worked, Philp fell in love with Missoula. It’s where he’s raising his family.
Philp’s daughters attend Hellgate High School, just down the street from his office. He credits his wife as the biggest supporter of his startup venture, even if it often takes him away from home.
“It’s always been a running joke, what’s dad doing this week? I mean, between GCS and Terra and all the technology, they all kind of laugh at me. I’ve always been working on something new,” Philp said.
It’s not just his family that can’t keep up. Philp is constantly explaining his advancing technology to people outside the office.
First, Philp will tell you this: A disruptive, explosive amount of data is being created in extreme volumes these days.
His newest technology, Kairos, is designed to help customers cut out the white noise by identifying meaningful packets of information from streaming data, then analyze and correlate analyzes in real time. Then, Kairos provides actionable solutions in time to act.
Philp explained the amazing technology this way at the Beacon ceremony: Imagine you’re listening to 1,000 songs on your iPod and you need to analyze every word in every song all at the same time. You have to find the word zebra, and then find the denotative and connotative difference of how they’re using the word zebra in each song, with a 90 percent failproof rate.
Kairos can do that – and the “big data in motion” it applies to is at least a $16 billion market.
Philp recently returned from a nine-day trip to Washington, D.C., where he spent the bulk of his time explaining the technology to potential high-level government clients who are considering the technology to solve the most complex and dangerous national security issues.
In January, TerraEchos landed a $1.5 million venture capitalist seed investment from Flywheel Ventures.
With that cash infusion, Kairos became a full-time focus at the suggestion of TerraEchos’ new president, Bill Hartman.
“When Alex presented to Flywheel, he wanted money and help,” said Hartman, who is in the middle of shaping the message that Kairos is Terra’s main, all-star product. Sharing the leadership of his made-from-scratch companies was a hard decision for Philp. The transition is a continuing process, but Hartman believes he and Philp share core ideals.
Success, they both believe, rests on forming and strengthening business relationships.
In some ways, it was a shared fascination with historical tales like that of the Lewis and Clark expedition that helped solidify a key business relationship with the leaders of the S&K Technologies, a St. Ignatius-based tribal technology manufacturing company.
Larry Hall, president of S&K Electronics, and Philp met while working on a project. They talked about Philp’s days as a wilderness ranger and about his work on the expedition.
“That told me he was a person of high ethics, which in small business, in creating long-term relationships, that’s what you have to have,” Hall said.
S&K Technologies initially invested in TerraEchos in 2009 and is now a major stakeholder in TerraEchos’ off-shoot company Adelos Inc., which develops high-security sensor technology.
The collaborations among businesses here can help move the high-tech industry in Montana forward, and Philp’s high energy and enthusiasm for sharing the benefits of innovation helps to move that along, Hall said.
“I think it’s part of creating the buzz of what can happen and what are the possibilities,” Hall said. “Thinking out of the box, being dynamic, things will happen. That’s what you need to encourage either people that already live here and aspire to their dreams or to inspire an atmosphere for people who want to come to Montana.”
TerraEchos’ success, in large part, is due to its first contract with IBM in 2010, when it secured a licensing agreement with the software giant.
The deal allowed TerraEchos technology to be embedded with IBM’s groundbreaking Streams software, key to allowing the ultra-fast processing of huge amounts of data.
Quickly after the licensing agreement was signed, TerraEchos gained premier partner status with IBM and Philp was named an “IBM champion.”
The biggest recognition came in March when Terra won the 2012 IBM Beacon Award.
For Philp, bringing the Beacon home was an important representation of work done by many people to help grow high-tech innovation in Montana.
“It’s a lot more than just me. I want to convey, with the congressional delegates, how important IBM is to small-town innovation,” Philp said. “What I’m always looking to do is bring home not only a piece of crystal, but the idea that Montana can recognize innovation can happen here, it is happening here, and we can continue to build and grow advanced technology companies in Montana.”
Creating a meaningful economic impact by creating a healthy, high-tech sector and advanced information system hub in Missoula is a strong preoccupation from Philps’ constant work with Kairos.
“To get where we need to be we need all hands on deck. The university, business leaders, everyone needs to step up. I’m waiting to see us go from rhetoric to action,” said Philp, who sees a particular urgency in creating an atmosphere on campus at UM where well-prepared graduates can find a good-paying job and stay here.
TerraEchos president Hartman looks at it this way: If Missoula capitalizes on the attention brought to Missoula by Philp’s startups it can begin producing the right people to work in the force.
“For our company to be successful, we’re going to need talent ... it’s going to be tough to get who we need,” Hartman.
IBM has already contributed thousands of dollars in services to the university and is in discussions with the UM, Terra and IBM to do more to bring a curriculum based on its technology to the university.
Hartman sees a major opportunity for Missoula in that.
“You have an opportunity to catch the wave. You can’t duplicate Alex, but (Missoula has) a great opportunity because through Alex, lightning struck here.”