University PhD sells makeup for breast cancer research

Simone Xavier is a former U professor and co-founder of Sigma Beauty.

Founders of Sigma Beauty, Simone Xavier and Rene Xavier Filho in the company offices in Mendota Heights on Friday, October, 7, 2016. Xavier said transitioning from being a professor to running a business has been a challenge every day.

Founders of Sigma Beauty, Simone Xavier and Rene Xavier Filho in the company offices in Mendota Heights on Friday, October, 7, 2016. Xavier said transitioning from being a professor to running a business has been a challenge every day. “That’s why we innovate, nothing we do is conventional,” she said.

Eliana Schreiber

When she moved to Minneapolis to start her PhD, a young professor never imagined her patents would extend past veterinary medicine and into makeup brushes.

Now, Simone Xavier and her husband Rene Xavier Filho — a civil engineer — run Sigma Beauty full time, and their Minnesota-based company is partnering with the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center this month to raise money for breast cancer research.

Xavier built a connection with the University after getting her PhD in the early 2000s, and later returning as a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, where she studied bacteria in swine.

The Xaviers, Brazil natives, first launched Sigma Beauty’s website to sell miscellaneous items to friends back home. Eventually, they realized demand for makeup brushes was more widespread.

“My husband looked at the brushes and said, ‘I can make these,’” she said.

As a civil engineer, Xavier Filho already made paintbrushes, and had the skillset to produce the brushes at low prices, she said.

Xavier said she watched YouTube videos to learn more about what makeup users wanted. In 2009, she sent a few social media personalities brush kits.

Many gave the brushes positive reviews, and Xavier said the company “exploded.”

“One day we went upstairs for dinner, we came back, and everything was sold out,” Xavier said. “The 500 kits that we had.”

Xavier Filho quit his job right away to run the company. But Xavier wasn’t as quick to drop her job at the University.

“After it got way too big to be a side-business, I had to make a choice, and I had to leave and go run it,” she said. “Which [was] very weird for me and for my friends at the [University].”

Montserrat Torremorell, a CVM associate professor, said she and many of Xavier’s colleagues were surprised when she chose to leave.

“She was very successful as a scientist and then all of a sudden she [changed] paths,” Torremorell said. “We were surprised, but at the same time, we knew … it was a good opportunity.”

Xavier had worked to grow the company during her time as a full-time professor, Torremorell said, and eventually had to choose one.

Maria Pieters, CVM assistant professor and another of Xavier’s former colleagues, said the University was sad to see her leave.

“I felt bad for the University because I knew they were losing a good person who was really active in the swine industry,” Pieters said.

While the transition seems random, Xavier said she uses some of the same analytical skills she learned in her veterinary work at her company.

Because October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, Xavier and Xavier Filho’s website will donate $1 from each sale of pink makeup brushes to the Masonic Cancer Center.

“We hope in the future we can help much more,” Xavier Filho said.