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

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

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CNBC's Investing in Space newsletter offers a view into the business of space exploration and privatization, delivered straight to your inbox. CNBC's Michael Sheetz reports and curates the latest news, investor updates and exclusive interviews on the most important companies reaching new heights. Sign up to receive future editions.

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.

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.

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