Penn State soil science PhD candidate launches soil-based paint startup
UNIVERSITY PARK – As a soil science graduate student teaching at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, Zoelie Rivera-Ocasio found herself searching for ways to make studying soil more interesting in outreach activities for undergraduate students.
In one of these outreach activities, she made soil-based paints for the students. The activity went so well, and she enjoyed the process so much, Rivera-Ocasio decided to pick up the activity as a hobby.
When she moved to the United States in 2021, the hobby turned into a serious business pursuit.
Now a soil sciences and biogeochemistry PhD candidate in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, Rivera-Ocasio has launched her startup Zoils & Pigments, manufacturing soil-based paints such as watercolors, gouache, and crayons, using natural, and environmentally conscious ingredients for artists and children.
“Most of the paints you find in the store have synthetic pigments, which means they were created in a lab with chemicals,” Rivera-Ocasio said. “One unique aspect of our brand is that we source our pigments directly from the diverse soils, minerals and plants. We also share information on each pigment’s identity, characteristics, and origins through storytelling. Soils all have a name and an origin, so by sharing this information, the paints have an identity and people can nurture the connection with the location.”
Rivera-Ocasio explained that the main ingredient of her paints, aside from the soil for pigment, is the gum of the Acacia tree, which can be used as a watercolor binder. The soils used in their products are currently all collected from different regions of Puerto Rico, but Rivera-Ocasio said she is working on creating a Centre County “Happy Valley” six color pallet, including a Penn State blue.
Zoils & Pigments, which Rivera-Ocasio now runs alongside her husband Eric Appeldoorn, was a participant in Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank’s spring 2023 FastTrack Accelerator program. She said the program really helped them understand the nuts and bolts of building a business, especially the financial side.
“What I really enjoyed is that it wasn’t a solo mentorship, you have a group,” Rivera-Ocasio said. “You have all the advisors who provide guidance, but then you also have the cohort. It feels like a community – we are helping each other, we each have our own unique dreams for a startup.;. The advisors simplified the process of building a business in a way that I could understand it, but not so simple that it wasn’t useful. It was really eye opening.”
Zoils & Pigments won $2,000 at the final FastTrack Accelerator pitch competition, which was hosted during Penn State Startup Week powered by PNC. The same day, they won first place and $5,000 at the Arts Business Idea Competition hosted by the College of Arts and Architecture. Rivera-Ocasio and Heer Patel, a team member and student from the College of Agricultural Sciences, also recently presented at the Ag Springboard Competition hosted by the College of Agricultural Sciences and won second place and $2,500.
“We are incredibly grateful for the level of support Penn State has provided us,” Rivera-Ocasio said. “Seeing the fruits of our dedication is wonderful and really motivating.”
Rivera-Ocasio said the next step for Zoils & Pigments is to release a coloring book. They worked with a graphic designer over the past year to develop a coloring book with watercolor paper that teaches the user about soils while painting with soil-based paints. Zoils & Pigments aims to release the book by the end of summer 2023. She also hopes to build a processing unit for soils to be able to process more pigments in less time, and to eventually move into stores and schools, as they are currently solely selling to individual customers online.
“The biggest success thus far has been connecting people with soils,” Rivera-Ocasio said. “Being able to see all the colors of the soils, that it is not only brown, but also red, orange, yellow, even purple, then they start thinking about why we have those different colors, and then they grow a feeling that they should care about the soil, which is my ultimate goal.”
She said her best advice for others at the University thinking about starting their own business is to not think that it must wait until after graduation.
“Sometimes, you can successfully work on two things parallel,” Rivera-Ocasio said. “I have my commitment to my research timeline, but I’m also investing time in the startup. I don’t have to wait until I finish my PhD, and this allows me to take the time to see all the resources at Penn State. People here are really willing to help you and want to see you be successful.”