Thayer Corp. of Auburn has quietly become nationally known for creating the right conditions for growing marijuana. For Dan Thayer, it’s not just business, it’s personal. 

AUBURN — Three years ago, Dan Thayer, president and co-founder of Thayer Corp., took a call from a former customer.

The man was with a new company that needed Thayer’s expertise installing heating and cooling systems. Could he come out and give the building a look?

That new company turned out to be a large medical marijuana growing operation.

Intrigued — and a little wary — Thayer, 58, dove into research: What sort of conditions, exactly, did medical-grade marijuana need to grow? What sort of air circulation? What sort of odor control?

A year later, Thayer created Lifespring Microclimates, a new division of Thayer Corp. specializing in “precision agriculture,” an approach that treats growing more like manufacturing than farming.

Because of that growing expertise, he’s now getting work from here to Hawaii. He’s also designed two pieces of marijuana-specific tech with more in development.

But Thayer’s interest in the new line of work wasn’t just a matter of increasing profits.

Around the time he got that call from the former customer, Thayer’s 80-year-old mother moved from her home into a care facility. She’d been using a combination of oxycodone and medical marijuana to handle pain and inflammation, along with other medications. The new facility wouldn’t dispense medical marijuana. Doctors doubled her oxycodone instead.

“I no longer knew my mother after that,” Thayer said. Her personality, memory, attitude and energy weren’t the same.

Thayer weighed the potential stigma of working for the marijuana industry against helping people like his mom.

“That took some soul-searching and some discussion amongst our leadership here, and we said, ‘You know what? We have a long history of taking the high road,'” he said. “There’s a dire need here that needs to be filled and we need to be doing it.”

It’s given Thayer what economist Ryan Wallace calls a “first-mover advantage.”

“They’re gaining the expertise and carving out a niche for themselves that they’re then able to go out and export their services outside the state, and for all intents and purposes a lot of that money is coming back into Maine,” said Wallace, director of the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine. “We talk about economic development, the multiplier effect. That’s what we’re looking at.”

What Thayer is starting to do now, though, is more than research. He’s exploring ways to matchmake investors, properties and growers, and standardize facilities into a sort of best-practices kit.

“I think it screams for a franchise model,” Thayer said. “This is an industry Maine could export. Not cannabis. Know-how.”

‘A WHOLE NEW WAY’

After that initial request for help three years ago, the first of its sort for the 35-year-old company, Thayer quickly discovered there wasn’t a whole lot of fact out there related to marijuana growing.

There were blogs, message boards, “this worked for me”s and plenty of misinformation, but not much science.

“For my (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) world, I rely upon peer-reviewed scientific information,” Thayer said. “That’s how you vet a technology or you vet a technique or approach or design. When you start to drill into that (with marijuana), there’s no guidance. So understandably, people are making some very bad decisions in their cultivation and the stakes are extraordinarily high.”

Lose a crop to mold, fungus or infestation and that patient is left hanging and thousands of dollars sunk in product, time and electricity.

“The energy-intensity of a cultivation facility is almost the same as a data center,” Thayer said.

Marijuana is a tricky thing to grow well inside a building.

Lois Berg Stack, a professor and horticulture specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has spent 30 years giving advice to greenhouses and nurseries.

Though medicinal marijuana is legal in Maine, the Cooperative Extension is federally-funded and marijuana is federally illegal, so it’s a crop she’s banned from directly consulting on, though she suspects a grower might have slipped in a question or two.

“Marijuana is an unusual crop in that it’s typically not grown in greenhouses. It’s either grown out in fields or in warehouses and railroad cars and very different kinds of environments than what a greenhouse offers,” Stack said. “In a greenhouse, they get free light from the sun, but they have to manage everything else,” like excess heat in the summer and too little light in the winter. “In a warehouse, you have to provide everything. It is a whole new way of production.”

Circulating air quickly becomes an issue, as does bugs.

“As a commercial grower, I couldn’t pick up a chemical that is labeled to be used on maple trees and apply it to my tomatoes. It’s illegal,” Stack said. “There aren’t any pesticides labeled for marijuana. If they have a breakout of aphids or mealybugs or spider mites, there isn’t anything they can use to treat them, it’s just illegal. It’s all those pieces of the puzzle (that have) to come together to make it work.”

Thayer said he devoted himself to an hour and a half of reading every day for two years, rising at 5 a.m. to sort through lessons that might be applicable from other crops and then knocking on doors, which proved its own challenge.

“You reach out to people, ‘Hey what’s going on with this?’ And you find out, nobody shares anything,” Thayer said. “Because there’s no best practice, those who feel they’re doing it well, they guard that as proprietary.”

It’s also an industry rife with non-disclosure agreements. Medical marijuana dispensaries like the eight in Maine don’t allow visitors, by statute, so there is no dropping in to tour and learn.

It’s been a slog, but Thayer believes his company has figured out the conditions to grow medical-grade, high yields consistently. 

“We don’t get into the philosophical of right or wrong, I can only tell you from a medicinal point of view,” Thayer said. “I’m highly motivated to help people. I had a client tell me — I was meeting with him two days ago — he said, ‘I just had one of my biggest orders ever. It was for suppositories.'”

That client’s customer, suffering from stage IV cancer, had been told by doctors six months ago, “We’ve done everything we can, get your house in order.”

“If you dose with a suppository, you can dose very high levels of the drug with no psychoactive component because it bypasses the liver function,” Thayer said. “He’s been using suppositories now for about two months. He said, ‘My white blood count is 25 percent of what it was.’ He’s back to working every day, eating, hungry, putting weight on, and he said, ‘I don’t care what I spend because I’m beating the odds.’ It’s not an isolated story — we hear those stories over and over and over again.”

‘THIS IS SOMETHING WE’RE GOOD AT’

The vast majority of his work has so far been out of state. Costs range from $500 for a service visit, to $35,000 and up to start helping a very small operation, to millions of dollars to outfit a large, new precision agriculture facility.

The largest project they’ve worked on was a 50,000-square-foot retrofit. Roughly one-third of the time, he’s called in to consult after the fact; the rest can start at the ground up.

The company has developed two technologies, one an odor control unit and one a sanitation unit, both manufactured in Maine.

Lifespring Microclimates has four employees. Installation work within a two-hour radius is subcontracted to Thayer.

Even among their own customers, it’s interesting to see the difference in results and attitudes, Thayer said. His “best in class” — ones with standard operating practices in place, tighter controls — are seeing 50 percent more yield than his average customers.

“When we go to service them (they say), ‘No, you can’t enter a facility without having a Tyvek suit on,'” Thayer said. “Others are, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ That’s the discipline.”

He plans to pursue several R&D projects at the latest facility designed and built by Lifespring Microclimates, one that’s “very nearby” and “state-of-the-art,” for three caregivers.

“Our computer system measures every parameter inside,” Thayer said.

His goal: “On a real-time basis . . . monitor what’s going on inside the plant and adjust the environment, the food, the watering, to optimize the health. The science is there, we’ve figured out how to do it and now we just need to complete the prototyping and the testing.”

He’d like to see the entire process “substantially automated” — that’s less labor and energy and fewer contaminants.

The idea of something akin to a franchise — ready-made grow facilities — is something “we’re actively working on now and I think that (its release) will be measured in months not years,” Thayer said.

It’s work most people driving by would never guess originates from Thayer’s headquarters on Hotel Road.

“We keep it pretty quiet, frankly,” Thayer said. “There’s some people that still look very negatively on this and all the labels that go with that. We feel we’re doing this for the right reasons. That’s the nice part about being a private business owner — you don’t have to answer to those you don’t want to answer to.

“I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal, but this is something that we’re good at,” he said. “We have a lot of insight and we have a mission and I don’t think it will be a long time before we’re doing as much work with other plant crops as we are with cannabis.”

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