Bacteria doesn’t have the best reputation. Fear of these microorganisms has spawned an industry of consumer cleaning products that are manufactured, marketed, and sold to kill bacteria for what has been believed to be improved sanitation and peace of mind. But after more than a century cast as the villain, science and consumers are giving bacteria a second look with the understanding that some of these microorganisms are actually good, and even necessary, for human health. Grocery shoppers are choosing foods packed with supportive bacteria in order to support their digestive systems. And CIC Cambridge-based startup Mother Dirt is harnessing probiotics in cosmetic products to deliver cleaner, clearer, healthier skin.
“We’re recalibrating what clean really means,” says Mother Dirt founder Jasmina Aganovic. “We’ve gotten very sophisticated in formulating products for compatibility with the skin’s microbiome.” While common soaps have been engineered to kill bacteria living on the skin, Mother Dirt’s portfolio of cosmetics are designed to promote balanced bacteria populations. Its flagship product, AO+ Mist, is a probiotic spray that contains a live culture of bacteria. The brand was one of the first to launch a skincare line featuring probiotics, but others have quickly followed suit, including major companies like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble. “All the big conglomerates are actively investing in this space,” says Jasmina. “That indicates progression in the field and, more likely, the longevity of it.”
While several beauty brands offer products that target the skin’s microbiome, Mother Dirt has some major differentiators – it spun out of AOBiome, a leading clinical-stage biotech company researching the science of Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria (AOB) and human health. “We originated as a scientifically grounded company,” Jasmina explains. “So what that meant for us is that we’re very rigorous in what we look for, standards are extremely high, and we’re extremely conservative on several fronts where other brands starting from the consumer side might not take the same precautions.”
Case and point – the word “probiotic.” It’s not an FDA-defined or regulated term so the skincare industry has interpreted it to mean everything from live cultures to dead bacteria, stuff bacteria produces and even chopped up little bits of bacteria. Unlike Mother Dirt, few companies have tied their claims directly to the type of so-called “probiotics” they’re using. “I’d like to mention our bacteria actually is alive,” Jasmina says confidently.
The living culture in the AO+ Mist presents some challenges when it comes to product shelf life. It is shipped in an insulated mailer with ice or heat packs depending on the season, and can survive at room temperature for about a month before it needs to be moved to the refrigerator to preserve what’s inside.
Jasmina admits that the logistics of safely getting products made without preservatives to the end-user can be tricky. “What we try to do as a business is to be creative and lean into how that differentiates our product and technology, and we’ve been fortunate to have been well-received from that perspective.”
With all the challenges she has to solve, the company chief counts on CIC to simplify her life. “CIC just makes it really easy for us to grow and expand. It’s a special place to be.” The coworking space was a natural fit for Mother Dirt as AOBiome was already a part of the community. Jasmina enjoys the spirit of innovation found at CIC with its proximity to great area universities, including her alma mater MIT.
Recently, Mother Dirt outgrew its space at CIC’s flagship One Broadway location and moved across the street to our newest offices at 245 Main. Her team marveled at the stunning design of the facility, but it’s the dog-friendly policy that’s the real highlight. “Several colleagues have dogs, so moving them to a dog-friendly environment was a great way to start a new chapter for our growing team.”