ThayerMahan growing quickly in Groton
Groton -- Vice Adm. Mike Connor had spent 35 years dragging his family from one Navy station to another during a career capped by being named commander of U.S. submarine forces, so after military retirement he gave his wife the chance to decide where to settle down.
She chose Mystic. And he chose not to retire.
Instead, he started a new business called ThayerMahan, a nod to a famed naval strategist and historian from more than a century ago named Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose classic book, “The Influence of Sea Power on History” had a lasting impact on military thought both here and abroad.
Connor believed his new company could have a continued impact on U.S. submarine forces by addressing one of the Navy’s biggest problems: the price of submarines was going up at the same time the capacity to build them was going down. His solution: more small unmanned submarines that could supplement the work done by larger Navy vessels.
“The whole idea was, ‘Can you sit in headquarters somewhere and drive a vehicle on the other side of the world, get the information from it and redistribute that?’” Connor said.
ThayerMahan, which holds several marine technology patents, has proven it can, as the Defense Department acknowledged in November by awarding the Groton-based company a $19.3 million contract to continue the development of its autonomous maritime sensing technology.
Connor, now chairman and chief executive of the company that he started with Chief Operating Officer Richard Hine, said ThayerMahan has tripled its business in each of the past two years. He expects business in 2024 to be up as well, and 2025 should be bigger still.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has hailed ThayerMahan for being at the forefront of new marine technology that he said in a release will be “a critical capability in the 21st century.”
But ThayerMahan is far more than a defense contractor. In recent years, the offshore wind industry has discovered its capabilities and now uses the company’s technology to decide where to place turbines and to track whales nearby to reduce the chance of harming marine life. Connor hopes in the future to interest general shipping companies in using ThayerMahan technology to protect whales as well.
“We work for the most environmentally aware companies in the world who are taking a very unfair environmental rap right now,” Connor said, referring to the offshore wind industry, which is often under fire for its potential effect on marine mammals. “I think a large part of our mission is Is just having the data so they can prove that they're innocent.”
Connor said offshore wind can benefit from ThayerMahan technology by being able to extend its ability to work overnight and in the fog when sensors can provide information on the presence of marine mammals critical to the possibility of around-the-clock building operations. The ability to make offshore wind operations more productive, he said, is one reason why that industry now accounts for about 60% of the company’s revenue, compared to about 40% for the defense industry.
“They can't work during fog; most of the fog kicks in right after sunrise,” Connor said of his offshore wind clients. ”And so, if they could work at night with the aid of our systems, that will make them more efficient, they can work around the clock.“
All this adds up to more projects and additional employees. The company, which started eight years ago with a core of just three people, has now grown to 170 (125 in Connecticut), more than doubling in the past two years alone. In addition to its Groton headquarters on Leonard Drive near Groton-New London Airport, the company includes additional locations in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Lexington, Mass.
“The people are all self-motivated, they tend to be invested in the mission, whether it's the government side or the protecting the environment side,” Connor said during a tour of the ThayerMahan offices.
Connor estimated that the company employs 60 to 70 engineers, including software specialists.
“You can put a sonar in the water but it takes software to figure out what that noise actually is and where it’s coming from,” he said.
Two years ago, ThayerMahan bought out a small artificial intelligence company, and now counts AI as one of its strong suits.
“We have a lot of in-house competition between the traditionalists and the AI team; it's actually pretty healthy, but it is competition, right?” Connor said. “They're having some pretty good results. Usually, the big difference is they can do a lot of the same things but much more quickly.”
Connor said the core of ThayerMayhan workers comes from the submarine force, with about five former sub commanders onboard and perhaps 15 specialists trained in sonar. But he’s always on the lookout for skilled workers with mechanical or electrical backgrounds who enjoy working in a healthy environment with good pay and benefits including bonuses and stock options.
The idea, he said, is to harness emergent technologies to become more efficient in monitoring what goes on in the oceans.
“The idea was: What if every submarine had the ability to leverage a whole bunch of sensors that were off board?” Connor said. “And one of the organizing principles is we can provide high-quality acoustic search coverage for less penny on the dollar relative to submarines and surface ships.”
“It’s all about lots of sensors, big data analytics,” he added while showing off the ThayerMahan operations room, which helps track activity in the oceans.
Connor said he has a background in physics, but his specialty was underwater acoustics. These days, though, he spends a lot of time talking to lawyers and bankers as well as finding new customers, some in Asia.
“The ocean is increasingly crowded,” Connor said. “We use it for food. We use it for cargo, we use it for energy. And eventually, we're going to use it for minerals,” he said. “So In order to do to do all that responsibly it’s going to take more instrumentation ... that's all good for us.”
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