Q&A with Ian Cinnamon, Apex's Chief Executive Officer and Founder

Published on
June 6, 2023
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Ian is the CEO and cofounder of Apex. Prior to Apex, he sold his dual-use AI company to Palantir. During his tenure at Palantir, he worked closely with several satellite companies, gaining valuable insights into the challenges faced by the space industry due to the scarcity of commercial off-the-shelf spacecraft platforms.

Q: You've transitioned from software to aerospace hardware. Can you elaborate on your career journey?

My fascination with dual-use technology began at MIT during my undergraduate studies, where I worked in Professor Jeremy Wolfe’s Visual Attention Lab. The lab focused on studying human cognition and attention, and our work had significant implications for both the commercial sector and the government, ranging from cancer detection to identifying threats in airport X-ray machines. This experience sparked my interest in developing technology that caters to diverse sets of customers.

After graduating, I relocated to Silicon Valley, where I was privileged to learn from seasoned entrepreneurs. Eventually, I established my company, Synapse, leveraging the research I had undertaken at MIT on airport X-ray detection. Synapse initially functioned as a software firm, applying advanced AI and computer vision to X-ray security imagery. However, we soon evolved into a hardware company, as the security requirements of our clientele necessitated custom-built edge computing hardware.

Years later, we sold Synapse to Palantir, where I had the opportunity to apply our AI platform to satellite imagery. As I worked with dozens of satellite companies and the data coming from their payloads, I heard a constant set of complaints around the satellite bus options that were currently on the market. Whether these satellite companies built their bus in-house or purchased them, there was a clear desire for a better bus option. That’s when the idea for Apex came to life.

While many associate Apex strictly with hardware, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our engineering team comprises a balanced mix of hardware and software engineers. Software is the key enabling factor that lets us build truly configurable, productized satellite platforms. Leading a company that combines my passion for hardware and software, as well as my interest in dual-use technology, is a privilege.

Q: How has your experience as an investor at Village Global influenced your role at Apex?

Despite my investment background, I'm fundamentally an operator. My time an investor offers a great lens, and I was lucky to be able to work at Village Global after Palantir, where I could invest in aerospace companies while fostering the idea for Apex. As an investor, I learned the importance of building a real company with fundamental unit economics— not a science experiment. I learned the importance of working with the right set of investors— those that can open the right doors, unlock the right opportunities, and finance the company throughout its growth. I learned the importance of governance, organizational design, and bringing together the right team. My perspective as CEO has been improved by seeing both sides of the table, and I constantly use my learnings from Synapse, Village Global, and more to help set up Apex for success. 

Q: What was the most nerve-wracking moment of your career?

At Synapse, our very first customer was Narita Airport, one of Tokyo’s largest airports. We had just installed the AI system onto the X-ray machines, and noticed that our system would shut down every few days. This behavior was odd, but we dismissed it as a software bug… until the system started restarting more and more often. After a lengthy investigation, we learned that our GPUs were overheating due to faulty COTS hardware. The GPU’s failsafe was causing the system to power down and restart. If we hadn’t caught the bug, we were days away from the failsafe giving out, which would have literally melted our hardware and caused a fire at one of the world’s busiest international airports.  We learned a lot about risk mitigation, and how even “reliable” components may not be so reliable! That caused a lot of sleepless nights…

The X-ray on the left contains the slide of a firearm near the bottom. The X-ray on the right contains a lower receiver on the left side of the X-ray.

Q: What are you most proud of from your career?

After selling Synapse to Palantir, I received a call from an unknown number. I picked up, and the director of a major international airport was on the other end. He said he only had a couple minutes, and quickly explained that one of Synapse’s AI systems caught a criminal trying to board a plane with a firearm. The human had missed the weapon, but our AI led to the apprehension of the criminal, keeping countless people out of harm’s way. We had caught other prohibited items before, but knowing that our system continued to thrive post-acquisition and continues to make an impact makes me quite proud.

Q: Tell us about the naming convention of Apex satellite buses.

Aries the Havanese (not the satellite bus).

Our tradition at Apex is to name our products after our office pets. Aries, my Havanese, inspired the name for our smallest satellite bus. Naturally, our next product, twice the size of Aries, was named Nova after my co-founder Max's dog. We extend this naming tradition to new members of our team, allowing their pets to be the inspiration for future Apex product lines.

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