Defense startup aims to bring underwater search technology into the future

ThayerMahan CEO Mike Connor, right, stood with support teams from OASIS and Liquid Robotics as the company's robotic systems underwent sea trials off the Big Island of Hawaii in September of 2016. (Photo courtesy of ThayerMahan)
ThayerMahan CEO Mike Connor, right, stood with support teams from OASIS and Liquid Robotics as the company's robotic systems underwent sea trials off the Big Island of Hawaii in September of 2016. (Photo courtesy of ThayerMahan)

Groton — At the new ThayerMahan office, chief operating officer Richard Hine holds up a chart with colorful bubbles that demonstrate the components of a "marine robotics ecosystem."

ThayerMahan is a systems integrator, and so some of the bubbles are the parts it combines: host vehicles from Liquid Robotics, towed array sonar from Raytheon, acoustic payload integration from OASIS.

"We'll be providing basically mobile autonomous acoustic search systems," CEO Mike Connor explained of ThayerMahan. "We offer networking service and analytical tools to examine the results of those systems."

The chart also illustrates how success for the startup could lead to venture capital buzz, new capital, faster funding, more startups and more defense-oriented entrepreneurs.

This kind of visual thinking is the norm for the office. Hine's whiteboard walls are filled with brainstorming and to-do lists. The company hired an artist to illustrate its meeting notes, and her works hangs on panels in the conference room.

This is at 120B Leonard Drive, a building with office space and a manufacturing facility that ThayerMahan moved into at the beginning of October.

ThayerMahan had its grand opening and ribbon-cutting Thursday.

'Just a couple of guys with an idea and a vision'

Along with Connor and Hine, the other employees are John Kao, chairman; John Russ, director of maritime operations; Alex Lorman, director of maritime engineering; and Jason Combs, director of security. ThayerMahan hopes to grow to 20-25 employees by the end of 2018.

The founder of the company is retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mike Connor. He served as commander for the USS Seawolf, Submarine Squadron 8, and Submarine Group 7 Task Force 54/74, in Yokosuka, Japan.

It was obvious to him that the Navy needed a new way to add to the capability of its submarine force.

One of the men he teamed up with to tackle this is Hine, with whom he served aboard the nuclear submarine USS Pittsburgh in the 1980s. Hine left the Navy in 1987 and went on to work in real estate development.

As "just a couple of guys with an idea and a vision," Hine said, they started ThayerMahan in January of 2016.

They developed their first system, called Outpost, using venture capital and had a successful sea trial within nine months. Outpost consists of a Wave Glider — an autonomous, unmanned surface vehicle — that tows a sonar system deep in the ocean. The Wave Glider is made by Liquid Robotics, a Boeing company, while the towed array comes from Raytheon.

"It'll take the acoustic sounds, convert them into electrical and digital signals, communicate them back via satellite," Hine explained.

The company's customers will include the Coast Guard, the Navy, and municipalities or private companies that are interested in port security, Connor said.

ThayerMahan has a few other systems, which are all robotic systems but are not all based around a Wave Glider.

Their startup office was in Mystic, and they've been having the Lexington, Mass., company OASIS, which stands for Ocean Acoustical Services and Instrumentation Systems, do their assembly.

Once the warehouse at 120B Leonard Drive is complete, ThayerMahan will be able to integrate the parts in-house. Hine expects this to be by January.

The company is named for Alfred Thayer Mahan, a 19th-century U.S. naval officer and historian whose work led to the domination of battleships in the 20th century.

"What we're trying to do is kind of change that paradigm of naval thought for 21st century, where it's smaller units," Hine said.

Connor added, "The pace at which technology is advancing in the country today is phenomenal, but if you look at the places where technology is moving the fastest, it's where people with ideas meet up with people who are willing to expend venture capital to pursue those ideas."

The struggle with relying on the federal budget process is that it's essentially a three-year cycle, and technology can change a lot in three years.

Settling in Groton

"The Northeast is the best place in the country to be in a business like this," Connor said, citing Groton-area technology companies, the University of Connecticut, the University of Rhode Island, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Hine commended Paige Bronk, manager of economic and community development for the Town of Groton, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, for their support.

He also expressed optimism for working with the Naval Undersea Supply Chain Consortium, a project that Bronk leads as part of the Thames River Innovation Place.

"We'd love to have more of these types of creative, undersea companies that are located around Groton," Bronk said. "We'd like to become somewhat of an epicenter of this type of activity."

Global impact

Courtney said he feels this will be "a shot in the arm to the region" and that it "continues to enhance our region as an ecosystem of undersea excellence."

"Looking from my vantage point on the Seapower Subcommittee, this whole sort of developing platform of unmanned undersea systems is definitely the wave of the future," Courtney said.

He added that they will reduce the risk to sailors, and Connor likewise said the technology "will allow us to maybe ease the stress of some of our forces."

The biggest gap Connor hopes to fill is in the western Pacific, but he also cited homeland security and issues in the European sector.

Overall, he said, that impact of ThayerMahan's work "will be that the U.S. and our closest allies will gain the ability to have a much better understanding of what's going on in more places than we do today."

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