Graphite, which is designated a critical mineral by the U.S. Department of the Interior due to its importance to the economy and national security, is a material in high demand for manufacturing within a variety of industries including batteries for electric vehicles, electronics such as mobile phones and computers, diamond tooling, heat treating, metal casting, and glass manufacturing.
Since its founding, Urbix has been focused on graphite processing -- mostly for battery makers, and namely in the automotive industry. Cuevas, who has an engineering background, decided to hatch an idea with a group of friends for a company that would mine the rich resources of graphite in a new, innovative way.
"We commissioned the University of Arizona to develop a technology that would be able to process this graphite in an environmentally conscious way without using the conventional process," Cuevas says. "This was a more efficient way. We commissioned the U of A, specifically their optical science department, to develop one part of the process."
In the years following the official 2014 founding, Urbix has achieved several momentous milestones, including its first $1 million in funding. It also settled into a 35,000-square-foot facility for its pilot administration line of customized processed graphite.
Because of its close lineage to the University of Arizona, Urbix was able to establish its foundation with work through the higher education institution's incubator program and the researchers within it. With a two-year pilot run complete, Cuevas says plans are in motion to operate out of a larger facility to move further into the graphite processing space.
"What we're doing now is looking for a spot in the state -- in the valley area -- that will give us a 450,000-square-foot facility that will be able to produce close to 30,000 metric tons of anode products per annum," Cuevas says.
The benchmark manufacturing figure, Cuevas says, has a 2025 target and, if realized, would be enough to power 350,000 high-performance electric vehicles.
In the first months of 2023, Urbix has made several announcements, including a joint development agreement with SK On, a global electric vehicle battery developer and manufacturer. The strategic partnership has been touted as an opportunity to develop industrialized anode materials and integrate them into SK On's advanced lithium-ion batteries within the company's gigafactories.
While graphite processing is not a new phenomenon, Cuevas says the proprietary manner in which Urbix handles it is state-of-the-art and unique.
"We do this in an entirely different way," Cuevas continues. "We've scaled the technology from scratch, with always having the underpinning elements of our company in innovative technology that doesn't use the conventional toxic and caustic approaches. If you compare it to the conventional, high-temperature processing, we consume less electricity."
Challenges: As with most startups, getting the word out about Urbix and what exactly it is doing can be challenging, Cuevas says. A short-term goal is to communicate the company's mission to investors, core customers, and other interested parties.
"I think graphite is starting to get more attention," Cuevas adds. "But I don't think people realize on a broad level of what the importance of it is."
Opportunities: While graphite has been the focus of Urbix since its founding, Cuevas says there could be further avenues to pursue in the long road ahead.
"Urbix is a technology company," Cuevas explains. "As there is more scrutiny in the market, there are opportunities for certain elements that a company must have. The next level is environmentally-sound practices."
Urbix's commitment to clean energy is a fundamental foundation that can lead to boundless opportunities and partnerships as the company continues its expansion, Cuevas notes.
"Be green, be environmentally conscious, be low energy consuming, in comparison to the others," he says. "All of those things should begin coming into play as the capacity aspect begins to get solved."
Needs: To further its expansion and mission, Cuevas says additional investments into the company will be required -- and patience will be a fundamental part of the process.
"Cash is the name of the game for a startup like us," he says. "For the past 20 years, the world has grown accustomed to a digitization approach to startups where you had your web pages, then your mobile apps, and then your crypto stuff. This is a completely different animal, a completely different type of revolution that requires a thing that you see, touch, and get dirty with."