Investing in Space

Spacecraft builder Apex raises $16 million from a16z and Shield Capital, reveals first customers

Cofounders Max Benassi, left, and Ian Cinammon.
Apex Technology

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Building the backbone of a spacecraft – the satellite bus, which provides the structure, power and movement – has long been a mission-focused endeavor. Buses are typically built to the specification of customers, with lead times often measured in years.

But Los Angeles-based Apex, founded last year by Ian Cinnamon and Max Benassi, is working to create a satellite bus manufacturer that flips that practice on its head.

"We move away from build-to-order, and we move to build-to-production-slots," Cinnamon told me.

Apex is now building its first Aries bus, which is set to fly as a demonstration mission on SpaceX's rideshare Transporter-10 mission in the first quarter of next year. The company expects to produce five more Aries in 2024, with Cinnamon seeing "tens of billions of dollars of demand" for the product. It's looking to sign and open a new 50,000-square-foot production facility in Los Angeles soon.

"We're currently talking to certain customers who don't even want to book a launch," Cinnamon said, adding "we do not control when these buses actually fly. We only control when they're built and ensure that we hold to our own schedule."

The startup raised an additional $16 million in a round led by VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and Shield Capital, bringing its total raised to over $27 million, Apex said.

"Fundamentally, we're building a real business with real unit economics where we're able to make money on every single sale," he added.

Inside Apex's first clean room during a tour in January 2023.
Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Andreessen Horowitz general partner Katherine Boyle acknowledged it's a "hard market" to fundraise in at the moment. But a16z is seeing "top tier companies" weather the headwinds, she said, and Apex is operating at an "extraordinary" pace.

"We always look for … speed to first mission, speed to first product launch – how quickly you can deploy hardware. To us, that's the best metric to track in terms of how solid the team is, how solid the business is," Boyle said.

Apex's first bus will carry payloads for a trio of customers: Spacecraft refueler Orbit Fab, Irish satellite venture Ubotica, and an unnamed defense contractor, who Cinnamon noted is "one the largest established players." 

Although Apex doesn't expect flying multiple payloads per bus to be its norm, the first Aries mission aims to prove the system works and to gain experience.

Cinnamon and Benassi's startup is now over a dozen employees, with about another dozen full-time contracts. The founders expect Apex to grow to about 30 employees by year end.

What's up

  • Boeing CEO reiterates commitment to Starliner program, with Dave Calhoun saying the company is not "shutting the door" on the capsule and is "going to do whatever NASA asks us to do," adding that Boeing still believes in it and that the human spaceflight transportation market "has to be more than" just SpaceX. – Aviation Week
  • China adds international partners to moon base plan, as the country aims to build a lunar "research station." Russia, the UAE and Pakistan have signed agreements on the project, with China aiming to construct a permanent lunar base in the 2030s. – SpaceNews
  • Ecuador and India join Artemis Accords as 26th and 27th signees, with NASA welcoming the countries as a participant in the set of policy principles that the agency established alongside the State Department in 2020. – NASA / The New York Times
  • Rocket Lab launches first hypersonic test mission, flying for Leidos: After the latter was awarded a Pentagon contract to test hypersonic technologies, the company selected Rocket Lab's modified Electron rocket, which flew from NASA's Wallops facility in Virginia. – Rocket Lab / Leidos
  • ULA launches first mission of the year with Delta IV Heavy rocket, carrying a classified spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office on mission NROL-68. The company has a final Delta IV Heavy launch scheduled for next year, before it is retired in favor of United Launch Alliance's coming Vulcan rocket. – ULA
  • SpaceX launches its 43rd mission of the year, with a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 47 Starlink satellites into orbit. – SpaceX
  • AST SpaceMobile reveals test satellite's download speeds, saying its Blue Walker 3 "achieved repeated successful download speeds above 10 Mbps" during testing in Hawaii earlier this month with unmodified smartphones. – AST SpaceMobile
  • SpiderOak conducts cybersecurity demonstration in space, with the company announcing it completed an end-to-end data security test through a Ball Aerospace prototype payload currently operational in low-Earth orbit. – SpiderOak
  • Launcher's space tug experienced a problem shortly after deployment, putting the Orbiter SN3 vehicle in "a high rate of rotation." Its batteries were also underpowered, so the company deployed its payloads earlier than expected. The primary customer, Starfish Space, says its Otter Pup payload is "unlikely to continue with its mission." – Launcher / Starfish

Industry maneuvers

  • Intelsat walked away from merger talks with SES that would have created a satellite communications giant. The U.S. company ended discussions with competitor SES after differences arose over business priorities, and a lack of clarity of how much value would be created after combining. – CNBC
  • Eutelsat to sell consumer broadband business to an unnamed buyer, indicated to be an "experienced private operator" of satellite communications services. The business unit had about 50,000 subscribers in 2020. – SpaceNews
  • Mynaric selected by Raytheon to provide laser terminals for use on seven satellites under the Space Development Agency's Tranche 1 Tracking Layer program. Notably, the award marks the second prime contractor to select Mynaric for crosslinks under the SDA program, following an award from Northrop Grumman. – Mynaric
  • Intelsat adds another Northrop Grumman satellite servicing mission, with the operator ordering another mission extension pod from SpaceLogistics, the fourth deal between the two companies. – Intelsat
  • NorthStar and Spire sign with Rocket Lab for a dedicated launch on Electron no earlier than September. The quartet of space situational awareness satellites were previously slated to fly with Virgin Orbit. – Rocket Lab
  • SCOUT Space raises more venture capital, bringing the in-space observation startup's total funding raised to over $5.5 million. – SCOUT
  • European rocket startups sign deals to launch from French Guiana, with both the Spanish company PLD Space and German company RFA signing with French space agency CNES to offer launches later this decade. – RFA / PLD

Market movers

  • Virgin Galactic stock surges nearly 50% in two days of trading, following the company's announcement that it plans to fly its first commercial spaceflight at the end of this month. – CNBC
  • Spire shareholders approve plan for reverse stock split, at a ratio of anywhere between 1-for-2 and 1-for-50, to be determined by the company's board. – Spire
  • Jefferies sees Redwire's European unit as 'well positioned,' with the firm writing in a note to clients that the business can tap into a 5-year total addressable market of $10 billion to $20 billion, especially due to "tailwinds" from multiple civil and defense sources in Europe. – Jefferies

Boldly going

  • John Fuller joins Stratolaunch as director of advanced projects, after more than seven years in the same role at Virgin Orbit. – Fuller
  • Stephen Wideman named CFO of World View, with Lori Garver joining the board of directors of the upper-atmosphere balloon company. Garver was formerly a deputy administrator of NASA, while Wideman recently served as the SVP and CFO of aviation services company Erickson. – World View
  • Andrew Parlock hired as Space Forge managing director, as the U.K. in-space manufacturing startup expands in the U.S. Parlock joins from ICEYE, where he was the director of new business. – Space Forge

Ad astra

  • Virgin Galactic chair Evan Lovell died unexpectedly following an illness: In addition to leading the company's board of directors, Lovell was the Chief Investment Officer of Richard Branson's Virgin Group. In a statement, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier offered Lovell's family "our deepest condolences," saying "we will miss him terribly." – Virgin Galactic

On the horizon

  • June 23: SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.
  • June 27: Virgin Galactic first commercial flight window opens in New Mexico.
  • June 27: NASA hosts 'Moon to Mars' architecture workshop in D.C.