Apex spacea startup looking to transform satellite bus production emerged from stealth Monday with a $7.5 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz.
The Los Angeles-based company has its sights set on the satellite bus — the part of the spacecraft that houses the payload — which it says is the “new bottleneck” hitting the space industry. Apex’s two co-founders, Ian Cinnamon and Maximilian Benassi, said in a blog post that they independently observed significant changes in the industry that convinced them that a new solution for satellite bus production was needed.
Cinnamon, a founder of technology startups whose company, Synapse Technology, was acquired by Palantir in 2020, said he saw payload customers being “held back” by the long and costly process of building custom satellite buses. Benassi, an engineer whose career spans six years at SpaceX and nearly a year and a half at Astra, observed changes in the launch economy that allow for mass production — rather than the custom engineering process hitherto characterized by satellite buses — more wisely.
“Given this transformative change, we need to rethink spacecraft and adapt to the new market conditions,” the couple said:. “We can’t just build spacecraft. We have to produce them on a large scale.”
This approach, which Cinnamon described in an interview with gotechbusiness.com as scalable and product-driven, is a significant departure from traditional satellite bus manufacturing. Apex aims to deliver satellite buses to customers within months, rather than the status quo timescale of a few years.
Apex is launching a small satellite bus called Aries, which can carry a payload of up to 94 kilograms. That platform will be suitable for missions to low Earth orbit; the startup says on its website that future products will be compatible with other missions, such as those to geosynchronous orbit. Apex also offers add-ons such as insurance and flight booking. Cinnamon said the company plans to deliver the first Ram platform in 2023, followed by 5 in 2024, and scale from there.
While the two co-founders praised Astra and Rocket Lab for transforming the launch industry, these companies are also competitors, each designing satellite buses as part of a full-stop shop solution for customers. Other major players in the satellite bus manufacturing space include Terran Orbital, which last year announced plans to build a 660,000-square-foot satellite plant in Florida, and York Space Systems, which was valued at $1.12 billion after the sale of a majority stake to Firefly Aerospace’s owner AE Industrial Partners. But Cinnamon said Apex will differentiate itself from these players in a few different ways: The first is that the startup’s “bread and butter” will be commercial customers rather than government customers. He added that the company aims to produce on a scale of several months to keep up with demand from the commercial sector.
The call for large-scale production clearly resonated with Andreessen Horowitz, who launched a new fund early this year called ‘American Dynamism’, led by general partner Katherine Boyle. The fund aims to invest in companies that strengthen the country’s interests and solve problems in the supply chain, aerospace and manufacturing sectors, among others. As Boyle argued in her far-reaching investment thesis“The only direct way to kickstart American innovation is to build startups for critical issues.” For the Apex co-founders, solving the satellite bus manufacturing problem is not only critical to today’s aerospace industry. It is also key to making humans a multiplanetary species in the future.
“If we really think about that future, do we think that all the other spacecraft out there, moving goods and services, taking images of Mars and the moon, providing communication services, etc. all those spacecraft are really going to be handcrafted? built as unique one-of-a-kind specimens as they are now? Or are they actually mass-produced? And I believe that in order for that future to happen, they need to be mass-produced, and we want to be the first company to start producing these vehicles really scales up.”
In addition to a6z, there was also participation from XYZ Venture Capital, J2 Ventures, Lux Capital and Village Global. The first priority for the new funding is hiring, Cinnamon said, and the company is looking for people from the new space, traditional space travel and completely outside the space industry. The company will also use the raise to further develop the Ram platform, including ordering components and beginning assembly of the production line.