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The Magazine of The University of Montana

Homegrown Technology

Collaborative Efforts Put Alex Philp and his High-Tech Companies on the Map

By Ginny Merriam | Photos By Todd Goodrich


Alex Philp, who earned a master’s and a doctorate degree from UM, has started two companies aimed at keeping technology jobs in Montana.

Alex Philp might have lived happily in Choteau, making maps of the movements of bears and wolves and bobcats for the U.S. Forest Service and embracing a life in the outdoors. He might have been a philosopher or a historian grounded in ancient Greek. He could have answered the pull of an academic life in environmental ethics or geography.

Instead, today he brings all those interests to the world of technology. As president and chief brain among many at Missoula-based GCS Research, Philp, who earned a master’s and a doctorate degree at The University of Montana, is fiercely driven and wildly innovative. He works every day—fourteen to sixteen hours worth—at staying five to eight years ahead of the advancing technology front.

“I never apologize for striving for excellence,” Philp says. “You have to be authentic at anything you do. And you have to be absolutely straight.”

At its most simple, the work of GCS takes geographic information, applies computer software to it, and pairs that up with hard equipment to provide elegant, advanced solutions to real-life problems and needs. “World-class GIS solutions,” the company says. “Your data. Smarter.” The products of the nine-year-old firm are at work around the world, unnoticeable to average people but helpful to millions.

Take, for instance, Missoula County’s Property Information System. You can check in on the Internet and locate any parcel of land by address, tax identification number, or geocode. You can look at the parcel’s tax history and ask the system to overlay data such as floodplains, rivers, even voting precincts.

Or look at the Choose Lethbridge website, where the user can look at Lethbridge-area business data interactively.

Surveyors use the Montana Control Point Database to update and view surveying control points across the state. If you’ve ever used Street View in Google Maps, you’re using an application that began at GCS. Hunters use the Montana Parcel App for smartphones to make sure of their locations before they shoot. There’s an app for Vermont, too.

“Everything we do is custom,” Philp says. “The information is there. We make the systems that make it available.”

The company’s most exciting work today shows up in a security system called AdelosS4. Philp and his partners based it on the U.S. Navy’s BLUE ROSE system, which used fiber-optic cables towed behind submarines to listen to sounds in the surrounding ocean. In Adelos, Philp’s brain trust developed the technology into a fiber-optic cable that can be buried in the ground. The acoustic data it picks up—a footstep, a bird, a vehicle—is transmitted to the user in video in real time—two seconds, tops. Adelos can protect a power plant or a pipeline or be used in defense.

We cannot become a bunch of drooling consumers. We’ve got to be the innovators. We’ve got to take control of our destiny

Philp formed a separate company, TerraEchos, to work on Adelos. It partnered with IBM software to make Adelos work. To apply successfully for a Navy license to practice the invention, Philp needed a company to make the hardware. He met Larry Hall, president of S&K Electronics in Pablo. Then he met Tom Acevedo, president and CEO of S&K Technologies. S&K Technologies bought the majority of TerraEchos, and S&K Electronics makes the hardware.

It’s the first such investment S&K Technologies has made outside the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and it’s keeping S&K Electronics’ 100 or so high-tech manufacturing employees busy.

It’s a technology-based collaboration that works, Hall says. Technologies supplied the capital. Electronics makes the hardware. Philp’s shop does the software.

“That’s where the collaboration comes in,” Hall says. “That’s what Montana companies have to do to build sustainable technology jobs. We do the thing innovatively, collaboratively, but we get the same bang as big companies.”

Competing against thousands of other IBM partnerships around the globe, TerraEchos won IBM’s prestigious CTO (chief technology officer) Innovation Award for Adelos last fall.

“It helps save lives. It helps protect the war fighters,” Philp says. “Every day, the sons and daughters of Montana come back dead and wounded. Adelos can make sure that worst nightmares never happen.”


Larry Hall, left, and Tom Acevedo are seen with two versions of Adelos.

delos takes its name from the Greek word meaning “unseen.” And that association circles back to Philp’s early scholarly interests and classical education with Jesuit mentors at Seattle University.

Philp grew up in Redmond, Wash., with interests in the sciences, history, philosophy, and ancient Greek thought. His ambition, though, was singular.

“All I wanted to do was be a park ranger,” he says. “And be outside.”

In the spring of 1986, when he was nineteen, he landed a job as a seasonal ranger in Glacier National Park.

“That one summer completely, radically changed my life forever,” he says. “For some reason, the landscape called me.”

Philp worked for two seasons at Many Glacier and three at Two Medicine, both places where the plains and the mountains meet and the light dances as in no other place. He loved the Seattle area but was haunted by Montana.

Through college he pounded nails in new houses going up in Redmond for Microsoft billionaires, worked as a concierge in a hotel, and did research on spotted owls for a senator while studying history, philosophy, and environmental studies. Around graduation in the spring of 1990, a friend who worked for the Lewis and Clark National Forest called to offer him a job working out of Choteau at the Ear Mountain Ranger Station tracking and mapping the movements of a wolf on the North Fork of the Sun River. He collected biological data on pine martens, lynx, and bobcats. That led to a job mapping bear management units on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Philp mapped 2,800 square miles by hand and won a productivity award. His work provided the base data layers that became digitized into a GIS [geographic information system] record of the area.

“At the end of the day, I wanted to sit there and work in the Sun River watershed the rest of my life,” he says.

Intervention came in the grave illness of his future wife’s mother back in Seattle. He returned to Seattle to be with Gretchen, his sweetheart since kindergarten, and they were married in October 1992.

Philp wasn’t exactly employable, he remembers. He applied to graduate school at UM, where he began work on a master’s degree in history in the fall of 1994. In spring 1995, he happened into the UM Department of Geography. One door was open, that of Professor Jeff Gritzner.

“I sat down, and we talked for five hours,” Philp says. “I felt reborn. I now knew I had a home.”

Philp’s master’s degree morphed into interdisciplinary studies in geography, forestry, and history. His thesis was a three-volume history of the geography of the Sun River watershed. His broad practical experience in geography prepared him to integrate many aspects of the field, says Gritzner, whom Philp still claims as his mentor.

“He’s really an exceptional individual,” says Gritzner, who says that today Philp mentors him as much as the other way around. “I think his thought has a depth and clarity that is very, very unusual.”

From there, Philp was on to a doctorate in forestry. In late 1999 he was offered a job launching the Earth Observing System, a joint project of the schools of forestry and education. He was broke, the father of a baby, and he and Gretchen had another on the way. He took up residence in a cubicle in the School of Education, armed with a desk, a chair, and a telephone.

The Earth Observing System took science and data produced by UM climate scientist Steve Running’s team and turned it into a K-12 educational tool that helped people communicate about the planet’s changing landscape. GIS tools were just becoming Internet-based, and the exciting project won a NASA award.


Helena native Erin Brimhall, seated in back, is one of the “Montana kids” who gets to stay home because of a job at GCS Research. When he finished his master’s degree in computer science at UM in 2007, he didn’t want to leave the state, his family, hunting, fishing, hiking, and skiing. By luck, he went to work at GCS. It’s interesting work and a good salary, he says, and it’s allowed him and his wife to stay at home. “I was very worried for a long time about being able to stay in Montana,” Brimhall says. “In my field, I wasn’t sure it was possible. Grateful is the adjective I’ll choose.” Also pictured are Philp, front right, moving clockwise, Mike Beltz ’97, Brynn Griffin ’08, Elizabeth Schalk Aronoff ’98, Grant Frame ’10, Scott Frydenlund ’02, Brimhall, Robert Kinnear ’00, Dan James ’00, James Nyberg ’05 (sitting), Joe Tosoni ’08, and Mike Snook ’03.

“We were on fire,” Philp says. “I learned you don’t have to reinvent everything. We were taking the tools and combining them in different ways—systems integration.”

Philp worked “all the time.”

“A lot of people started saying I belonged in the private sector,” he says. “Too driven, too entrepreneurial.”

And he was being visited by people from federal programs who wanted problem-solving work from him. It was time to go out on his own. In typical Philp fashion, in fall 2002 he hired a lawyer and an accountant, bought a computer, printed business cards, set up a desk in his basement at home, and then sat down and called every person he had met through his work—633 of them. Geographic Communication Systems Research was born.

“I wanted to revolutionize how we communicate geographically,” he says.

Among his first projects was a series of websites that allowed people to experience the geography of the Lewis and Clark Trail on the Internet.

By late 2004, Philp’s wife thought it was a good idea to get him out of the basement.

He and his three employees rented a subterranean office in central Missoula they called “the radon den.” He borrowed $50,000 against his house to grow the company, and he asked his now-partner Mike Beltz to buy in. By 2006 they moved to the business incubator MonTEC. And three years ago, they outgrew that and moved to a building at Fourth Street and Higgins Avenue with eight employees.

Along the way, Philp finished his interdisciplinary doctorate at UM.

With an abiding interest in “getting the right data to the right people at the right time,” the team worked on synchronizing video and data for surveillance use in defense, as well as such things as forest fires and crop monitoring.

Today, GCS employs twenty-four people, about fifteen of them UM graduates. Philp is passionate about technology jobs as the strength of economic development in Montana.

“We’re investing in the Montana work ethic,” he says. “That’s why we hire Montanans. I can’t get enough of them.”

Montana can stop its traditional “brain drain,” Philp believes, by creating advanced technology centers that pay educated, professional Montanans good salaries for fulfilling work. Leadership and innovation must be the hallmark of the American position in the world.

“We have got to retain that,” he says. “We cannot become a bunch of drooling consumers. We’ve got to be the innovators. We’ve got to take control of our destiny.”

That suits UM, where GCS now funds a computer science scholarship, just fine. The science and technology jobs of the future are entrepreneurial, says Joe Fanguy, UM’s director of technology transfer.

“Alex is a huge role model for this institution,” Fanguy says. “And he’s a research partner. He’s got great energy and ideas. He also represents a small technology company that hires our graduates.”

Philp also is an example of someone who launches a business that fits Montana’s environment, its region, and its work force, he says. It’s the kind of business that helps Montana be part of the new economy that’s technological and entrepreneurial.

“I think it will be very critical for us to think on a regional level,” Fanguy says. “We have to make ourselves a part of that regional effort, that national effort, and make ourselves part of that team. That’s our opportunity. If you think about competing on a global level today, you can’t do that alone. There’s great opportunity for the city, for the community, for the state of Montana.”

Those ideas also sit well with the leaders of S&K Technologies and S&K Electronics.

“We know we’re developing industry here in Montana that has potential for well-educated Montanans to work in nonpolluting industries,” says SKT’s Acevedo, who grew up in Montana, earned his undergraduate degree at UM, and went on to earn a law degree.

The collaborations make Philp happy.

“I have one of the premier think tanks in Montana,” he says. “I get the work ethic. And Montanans get the chance for their kids to stay home.”

author_philipAbout the Author

Ginny Merriam is a graduate of The University of Montana School of Journalism and worked as an award-winning reporter at the Missoulian newspaper.She writes from Missoula.