News Column

Butte's wizard of technology

August 18, 2014

By Renata Birkenbuel, The Montana Standard, Butte

Aug. 18--It takes a router to connect a village.

It also takes a technical wizard like Phillip Curtiss, the hard-wired brain behind the fiber optic system branching out, web-like, among businesses in Butte.

If MERDI's basement-bound data center is a rock for the business community, then Curtiss, technology director and founder of Siafu Technology Group, is its gem.

"He's a hidden treasure here," said Pam Haxby-Cote, regional director of Blackstone LaunchPad in the Thornton Building, 65 E. Broadway St., Uptown Butte, where the streamlined fiber-optic data center hums.

"He quietly goes about doing amazing things and never takes credit for it," she added. "He has one creative idea after another."

When Curtiss founded Siafu in 2010, he named the company after a unique, biodiverse African ant with varied specialists, like his team of five software, mechanical and technical engineers.

"They are also the most communicative of the ants, so we kind of thought that would be good for us because we do so much," said Curtiss, who hails from Bethesda, Md.

He came to Helena in 1995, when he founded Infomine of the Rockies, an Internet service provider that evolved into a technical service provider. Its signature project was building the original Montana Library Network, which offers Interlibrary Loan to academics and the public.

"It was a pretty cool project," said Curtiss.

Eventually, Infomine moved to Butte, where Curtiss and his staff upgraded MERDI's existing data center in the Thornton Building basement.

"It wasn't really a data center," said Curtis. "It was more of a machine room really for MSE computers and network. They had a couple of carriers in there."

When he started Siafu in 2010, earlier talks about bringing in a fiber optic network beyond the physical walls of the data center took shape. Curtiss aligned with Superintendent Judy Jonart of the Butte School District to get all district buildings wired to the same network.

Like a siafu ant, Curtiss is industrious: He is instrumental in hooking up the following businesses to the fiber optic network that originates in the Thornton Building: The county courthouse, Small Business Development Center, the Butte Public Library, the Butte Civic Center, National Center for Appropriate Technology, Community Counseling and Correctional Service, National Center for Health Care Infomatics, Montana Resources, MERDI's engineering firm MSU and the Butte Community Health Center.

"We take on high-risk advanced companies and high-risk technology products," said Curtiss. "Projects that are less traditional."

While Jim Kambich and Gary Rowe of MERDI handle most contracts, Siafu focuses on the basics.

"We're the back-end people, the nuts-and-bolts, down-in-the-data-center people," said Curtiss.

But his technical knowledge spans many different disciplines.

Like his co-workers, Curtiss is accomplished: he has a doctorate in computer science and an undergraduate degree in philosophy.

During rare down time, Curtiss contemplates pet projects he's itching to complete:

One is an amateur telescope array. Since NASA does not fund huge observatory telescopes anymore, he'd like to place a fully automated, unmanned telescope on the far east side of the East Ridge. In conjunction with such telescopes the world over, it would collect spectral data for countless practical uses.

"The smaller telescopes are unbelievably powerful," said Curtiss. "I'm really, really interested in doing this. That's a huge project. We've got everyone on staff who can help us create that."

He's working with the Montana Tech computer science department on a research gig for the telescope idea.

The other project he's clamoring to do?

Build a small-scale thorium reactor as a practical alternative to large nuclear reactors. It would be catalyzed by salt and locally mined molybdenum to better control the volatile fission process.

The largest sources of thorium are found on the Montana-Idaho border about 20 miles south of Salmon and in Russia, he said. Montana Resources mines molybdenum in Butte.

"We want to scale that technology down to a much smaller version and use it to power a data center or a mine," said Curtiss, "or take it to sub-Saharan Africa where there is no power infrastructure and to provide power."

He spends much time applying for grants for funding, but Curtiss is more than an expert techie.

"Phil is one of the kindest, nicest people I have ever met," said Ray Rogers, executive director of the National Center for Health Care Infomatics in Butte. "Phil is an amazing asset for Butte. We are really fortunate to have him here."

Contact or 406-496-5512.


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Source: Montana Standard (Butte)

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