Cognitive Surplus: Bridging Science and Art with Unique Gifts

Blending science and art is no easy feat. Just ask Kristen and Geoff Zephyrus, partners in life and owners of Cognitive Surplus. “Most of the other companies that we see doing science and gifts, they’re either a designer who’s trying to make science things, or they’re a scientist who’s trying to make objects. So you either get things that are really beautiful but not quite right, or something really smart but ugly.” As a result, Kristen (the self-proclaimed “science nerd”) and Geoff (the designer) launched their own company to bridge that gap between “pretty” and “accurate” — Cognitive Surplus.

Cognitive Surplus is, as Kristen puts it, “a nerdy gift shop.” The online site is filled with science-themed and math-inspired items from anatomy notebooks to calculus symbol shot glasses. The especially neat items, though, are the ones where the object and the design itself converge. “Our idea is to get you to interact with the science of the object,” says Geoff. “So we [include] the chemistry of wine on the wine glass, the chemistry of beer on the beer glass.”

Cognitive Surplus "Chemistry of Wine" stemless glass

Cognitive Surplus “Chemistry of Wine” stemless glass

Cognitive Surplus — now 18 months old and headquartered in Jersey City — originated in a tiny Upper West Side apartment in New York City. Geoff had wanted to be an entrepreneur since he graduated from college, but he didn’t have a concept. Then, one day, Geoff proposed starting a wrapping paper company.

“You know what you should do?” Kristen told him. “You should make science wrapping paper. Because what are you going to do, put flowers on it? Someone else already puts flowers on it.”

Apart from that astute observation, Kristen had another motive: she was a science nerd from a family of science nerds. She knew the market for the products Cognitive Surplus would sell, and she could make sure the products were accurate—unlike the periodic table shower curtain hanging in their bathroom, which listed Carbon as a noble gas.

And so Cognitive Surplus—a company that makes both beautiful and scientifically accurate products—was born.

The early days weren’t easy. Neither of them had a business or retail background, so they were pretty much learning as then went.

“It’s like a rabbit hole,” Kristen describes. “We’re like ‘Yay, we have a product!’ Then we need a box. ‘Yay, we have a box!’ Now we need a stand. And then we have to sell it?”

They started out making DNA replication wrapping paper. “It was a bad idea, though,” Kristen admits, “because you throw wrapping paper away, so no one wants to pay a lot of money for it.”

Zephyrus_New_Design

Geoff Zephyrus working on a new design

After the wrapping paper, their next product idea was glassware. Geoff — a glass artist in college — knew how to use a sandblaster and created a few really beautiful pieces. However, that presented them with their second hard lesson: “You can do a few of them, [but] there’s no way you’re ever going to be able to do a ton of them.” Kristen said shaking her head. “The first one is really fun. The next three-thousand are not so fun.” They could not scale up their hand-produced production so they took a leap of faith and started ordering larger runs of items that weren’t handmade but that could be mass produced with their designs, hoping that people –and distributors–would buy them.

In the beginning, they felt like hope was all that they had. “We were working our butts off, and we weren’t getting anything back,” Geoff recalled. For those first 12 months, online retail was slow. They received a few orders from displaying their products at trade shows, but it wasn’t the level of success that they were hoping for. Only in the last six months have they begun to see a return for all of their hard work.

As it turns out, people liked their products; however, large retail chains needed to see that the company would last. Geoff explained that for big retailers launching a new product line requires a lot of effort and coordination; they can’t risk the seller suddenly vanishing after they get onboard with a product. “Whole Foods told us they just waited for a year to watch how we did.” However, that created a catch-22 for a small company like Cognitive Surplus. Geoff pointed out, “We might not be around if you don’t buy!”

Cognitive Surplus "Anatomical Brain" tote bag (100% certified organic cotton)

Cognitive Surplus “Anatomical Brain” tote bag (100% certified organic cotton)

This “waiting game” was just one of a whole slew of lessons Geoff and Kristen learned in that first year. Other major lessons learned included how to work with manufacturers from different countries, how to get things through customs, how to outsource order fulfillment, and finally: the importance of packaging.

“When we started,” Geoff explained, “we didn’t have any packaging.” However, they quickly discovered that both wholesalers and the end customers really needed packaging. “People have to be told why something’s cool,” said Geoff. Now, each item they sell comes in its own package, complete with an explanation of the item inside and a whole host of other details that customers might want to know, such as whether the item has been sustainably sourced or if it’s dishwasher safe.

“It’s been a really busy, insane, no-days-off, 18-hour-days of 18 months,” Kristen said of the business, “but it’s pretty exciting. We’ve learned a lot.”

While they’d love to sell their products out of their own store front (or a chain of stores), that’s a development for the future. “We’re doing like thirty people’s jobs,” Kristen explained. Geoff designs the products. Kristen shoots the photos. Geoff manages the website. Kristen handles customer service. And there’s marketing (Instagram, Facebook), sales (attending trade shows), market research (interacting with customers at trade shows), product sourcing, tech support, etc etc. . .  for now obtaining a physical retail space will have to wait.

The physical presence of Cognitive Surplus items are scattered among other retailers, large and small. You can purchase their products at local craft fairs this summer and at national chains like Whole Foods and Modcloth, or right here in Jersey City at WORD Bookstore.

Visit cognitive-surplus.com to check out their full product line and for more information.

Photos by Kristen Zephyrus

Allison Goldstein

is a writer, editor and sub-3:00 marathon runner. An enthusiastic resident of Jersey City, she participated as a playwright in StageFest 2014 and currently moderates The Full Story, a novelist-focused branch of Jersey City Writers. If you liked this article and are looking for help with your own writing, take a quick peek at her website.