GROTON — Years before the Connecticut Port Authority approved a $157 million deal to redevelop State Pier in New London as a staging area for offshore wind, and before a $22 billion submarine contract was awarded to Groton-based Electric Boat, a growing ecosystem of smaller companies have been setting up shop in the region, hoping to service the wind and maritime industries.
“We’re a bunch of guys who started a company based on maritime [technology and data]. Many of us are former submariners and we sought to do things with autonomous vehicles that we used to do with submarines with the idea that if we did it right we could save 99 percent of the cost of things that we used to do,” said Mike Connor, chief executive officer of ThayerMahan, during a roughly ninety minute conversation at their offices in Groton on February 3.
The brainchild of two retired submariners — one, Richard Hine, the chief operating-financial officer, with significant business experience outside of the Navy, and the other, Connor, a thirty-five year Navy veteran and former Commander of Submarine Forces — ThayerMahan was started just over four years ago.
The two founders started the company in a spare bedroom in Mystic creating undersea solar-powered monitoring “systems” that could collect and transmit data.
“Basically we tow sensors around the ocean. Some of them are electronic, some are acoustic. These [host platforms] are energy-harvesting vehicles. They get propulsion from wave action,” said Connor. “In my old world, the tow vehicle was a $3 billion submarine. [Our system] doesn’t require any food. It doesn’t require any repair parts. No one gets sick. No one has a family emergency and has to go back to port. It goes out there on the ocean for 90 days at a time.”
The company expanded, first into a two-room space in Mystic and then, almost two and a half years ago, into its current 14,000-square-foot warehouse and lab near the airport in Groton. A further expansion is planned for this spring.
In the meantime, with the offshore wind industry dropping into the region, Connor and Hine recognized a new market for ThayerMahan technology.
On January 30, just a few days before our visit to ThayerMahan, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Ørsted and Eversource to provide a wide variety of possible services — everything from environmental monitoring and seabed surveys, to offshore operations and maintenance, to real estate and construction consulting.
The agreement represents a kind of starting line, a marker, for onshore small businesses that want to work with offshore wind, said Connor, in a press release.
“This MOU is yet another commitment, in writing, that offshore wind will grow Connecticut’s economy and that the joint venture is truly interested in working with our local developers and inventors,” he said.
A growing startup
“I retired from the Navy out of Norfolk in fall 2015. Rich was living in the Norfolk area. We decided [start a business] in the summer of 2015. I knew I was going to retire from the Navy and had to decide to do something or nothing and I decided to do something,” said Connor. “Rich had spent decades in real estate development and was looking for a change, so basically over a golf weekend, we decided to go into business together. We’ve been friends for 30-plus years.”
“We served together on our first submarine … the U.S.S. Pittsburgh in the 1980s,” added Hine.
“So, when I retired from the Navy, my wife said, ‘you’ve been dragging me around the world for 35 years. I want to live in Mystic when we retire.’ So we did …. But it turns out, as far as the state, as far as the details of going from that to setting up shop here, the state was very helpful with some incentives and loans. Rich is an expert in working with the state,” said Connor.
The two worked with Connecticut Innovations, the state’s “venture capital arm,” as well as Connecticut Small Business Express and CTNext, which provided start-up and equipment loans and grants.
“The state’s been a wonderful asset for us. We joke, ‘everyone says Connecticut’s a terrible place to do business, you should think about Alabama, Mississippi or South Carolina,’ but for us in terms of local infrastructure and organizations that are related to the sub-sea domain, and state support for what we’re doing, it’s been a fantastic place to locate,” said Hine.
Connor said the talent base in southeastern Connecticut is deep due to the presence of Electric Boat and other maritime-related organizations.
“[Electric Boat] brings in top flight engineers from all over the country and they have 22,000 employees and 6,000-7,000 engineers and, just out of a body of engineers that size and just sort of normal churn, there’s a lot of people. And they just happen to understand maritime things, sonar things, communications because that’s all part of what we’ve been doing,” he said.
“The robotics industry is kind of centered in southeastern New England — if you take from Boston to Groton to Woods Hole and make a triangle, there’s a lot of assets and organizations, the Coast Guard R&D center, UWDC [Undersea Warfighting Development Center], the sub base, Electric Boat, UConn, URI, Woods Hole. So it’s a great place to draw people from,” Hine said.
Revolution Wind, the first announced project by Ørsted and Eversource — a 304-megawatt wind farm planned halfway between Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard — is scheduled to come online in 2023.
It’s just one of many planned and plausible projects and business opportunities related to energy, security, fisheries and the environment along the east coast from New England to South Carolina, which could be based out of Connecticut.
According to a 2019 report by the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative on Offshore Wind, over the next decade energy production alone off of the northeast of the United States could be worth $70 billion dollars (20 gigawatts) In the long-term for offshore wind energy, according to the analysis, “considering shipping lanes, bird flyways, and other sensitive ocean areas, there are 330 gigawatts of ‘developable’ resource – more than enough to supply all the electricity needs of the East Coast.”
Before Connor and Hine knew offshore wind would take a significant role in their future business, they marketed their systems to the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Offshore wind opened up new uses for ThayerMahan systems, including monitoring endangered sea mammals and ship activity during turbine construction and maintenance, which Connor said could have the side benefit of increased productivity.
“We would basically alert them there are whales in the area, which changes the way they operate the ship, generally they have to slow to five knots, however if we can certify that there are no mammals in the area, everybody gets to operate at normal speed, which saves money,” said Connor. “In the case of the mammals, it should allow work year-round or at least year-round subject to mammals, and there are things too like weather … what it does is it gives better information so they can make better decisions.”
The passive acoustic sensors used by ThayerMahan can listen at long range and identify the direction of a sound, a big advantage over a conventional moored hydrophone, said Connor.
“Say we’re five miles away and we know they’re on the seaward side of us, then that probably allows [the developer] to continue construction and we would just monitor for that situation to change,” he said. “[Because] we’re not moored means that we can do the monitoring without becoming an entanglement threat, which is an issue with lobster pots and other things where you have mooring.”
Each device weighs about 600 pounds and looks kind of like a surfboard with solar panels attached on top and a propulsion fins suspended below. The technology isn’t exactly new, explained Connor.
“We’re a systems integrator,” said Hine.
“This technology has been around for a decade. We make it do useful things. It started out with a bunch of Silicon-Valley millionaires who had houses on the Big Island in Hawaii and they wanted to listen to whale noises from their offices in San Francisco but they wanted it to be live and so they designed this thing to communicate by radio to their office in San Francisco,” he said.
“what we wanted to do is just change the whole approach from small numbers of exquisite, but very expensive things, to large numbers of relatively inexpensive things so we could be in more places at one time”
Connor said he came across the idea while he was still in the Navy and “just tried to think of something to do with it.”
“One of the issues I had in the Navy — I ran the U.S. nuclear submarine force — and realized that we could only put things in so many places at one time,” he said.
In an email, Connor later said that with a limited submarine force and a growing list of missions, the U.S. “can only put so many submarines on station around the world in so many places” and that one of the company’s goals is to support the effectiveness of U.S. submarine fleets.
“The traditional way to overcome that would be to ask for more money for submarines … so what we wanted to do is just change the whole approach from small numbers of exquisite, but very expensive things, to large numbers of relatively inexpensive things so we could be in more places at one time,” he said.
The systems move at about two knots, said Connor. “We can’t rush from place to place in these things … but we can be in places for long periods of time, understanding what goes on there because we always have a sensor that we can talk to and then we can move.”
The engineers who program the systems at ThayerMahan are in their twenties and thirties, said Connor.
“They’re the experts, which is pretty cool. We say it’s sobering for us because we decide what it is we want to accomplish, we know what the needs are because we’ve been out there and we spend a lot of time drawing boxes on white boards and saying you need to write some software that will do this … and, [they say,] ‘yeah, I can do that,’ and they do it,” said Connor. “These are 21st-century skills that they have. I really think this industry — the maritime sensing industry — is migrating in these 21st century techniques.”
The first vehicle the company developed was named Alfred, after historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, the company’s namesake who wrote “Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783,” and inspired the building of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet — a generational change in military maritime thinking.
“We’re rather presumptuous, but we’re saying this approach is going to set strategy for the next century and decided to take a historic name and apply it to the company. People in the business understand who Alfred Thayer Mahan is and it’s a good place to start talking when we first meet,” Connor said.
“We didn’t think Hine Connor merged together,” Hine laughed.
Connor is ambitious about the company’s potential, especially for the field of national security.
“[Our systems] give us a greater understanding of marine life, period — whether it’s rising ocean temperatures, shipping patterns or whatever. We should all get smarter”
“Our vision is, we’re going to help industry, like offshore wind, academia, like our friends at Woods Hole and Scripps and other places and UConn and URI, and we can also work on the national security with the U.S. and allies. We can do it by having more sensors in more places for less money and therefore better awareness,” he said.
The collected data can also be used to increase transparency and cooperation among offshore industries and activities, he said.
“Offshore space is increasingly a shared space. You’ve got commercial, you’ve got wild-catch fishing, you’ve got fish farms, you’ve got offshore wind — shipping is up 400 percent in the last 15 years — so we’re all sharing this very valuable resource and the idea is our equipment will help create a more transparent environment so that we can share this resource more responsibly,” Connor said.
ThayerMahan systems can survey and transmit in real time sonar images to a resolution of three square centimeters, and can be used to understand the long-term impact of offshore development — whether wind energy or other human activities — on marine life, said Connor.
“[Our systems] give us a greater understanding of marine life, period — whether it’s rising ocean temperatures, shipping patterns or whatever. We should all get smarter,” he said.