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Antwerp biotech start-up developed a circular cleaning pearl

Joris Jansen

Joris Jansen

Article published in Bloovi – 16 DEC 2020 

Scrub, scrub, scrub. The kitchen, the bathroom, the living room… everything today has to be spic & span. Clean, visually clean, but also… dead. Whiter than white. We prefer to clean with cleaning agents that kill all those ‘dirty bacteria’ and make our houses sterile, free of stains and dust. We want to be able to almost eat off the floor. “A totally wrong approach”, says Joris Jansen, founder of the Antwerp biotech start-up Probibel, which markets a unique circular cleaning pearl under the name YOKUU. “It’s time we started thinking of bacteria as allies, not adversaries.” 

Joris Jansen's YOKUU pearl

Bacteria as allies 

“In our urge to clean, we completely miss the target, which is to create a healthier living environment,” says Joris Jansen. “By focusing too much on a visually clean, sterile living environment, we kill everything, including the good bacteria. In fact, this cleaning rage leads to chemical contamination of our interior spaces. It’s time we started thinking of bacteria as allies, not adversaries. The goal of YOKUU is to make indoor environments healthy again, thanks to natural exposure to good bacteria.” 

Jansen is a bioengineer with a mission. He developed a cleaning pearl that can be dissolved in water and used as a cleanser by atomizing with a reusable spray bottle. With results that are better than what you get with conventional cleansers: YOKUU cleans, but keeps important bacteria alive. Our view of bacteria? Dirty. Dirty. The devil’s own and pathogens of strange diseases. “A very black-and-white story”, says Jansen. “And it’s not true, because in order to live. We need bacteria.” 

Under the spell of bacteria

He has always been intrigued by the smallest life form, and especially by its impact on our lives and health, says Joris Jansen. “As a bioengineering student, I became completely fascinated by bacteria, especially by how they affect our daily lives.” 

“Look, for example, at children growing up in the countryside or on a farm. Thanks to exposure to different microflora, they suffer much less from allergies or autoimmune diseases than children who live in a city. On a farm, you come into contact with animals, soil or other organic material much more, so that your immune system can develop better. It is usually slightly ‘dirtier’ there than in the house that thoroughly cleaned every week. But children are healthier there. So exposure to bacteria is not necessarily a bad thing, as many people think. To the contrary.” 

Healthier thanks to bacteria? Yes, Jansen emphasizes. “We seem to forget that bacteria have been helping us with daily life for billions of years. They keep rivers clean, provide a rich humus layer in the forest and are part of our immunity. The war that we have been waging against bacteria in the home for more than 50 years may end. There is nothing wrong with a clean house, but in our zeal we kill everything, including the good bacteria, and that is harmful to health. YOKUU wants to restore that balance in the house.” 

YOKUU pearl

A keeper. 

Jansen started from the question: to what extent can we use bacteria to clean our homes and businesses? This led to the founding of Probibel, the Antwerp start-up behind YOKUU. “I started development in 2018, and in 2019 I had my first pearl. It was a very time-consuming process”, he says. 

“After a while, friends and family asked me if I wouldn’t be better off doing something else, because there was no result. But giving up? No. Because I think it makes a lot of sense that we clean with bacteria. It’s been happening in the forest for thousands of years, so why shouldn’t we? I think that will just be the standard cleaning method in the future. And since I am absolutely convinced of my vision, I absolutely wanted this to succeed.” 

“I think it is very important that we not only reduce our plastic consumption and save on transport and water, but also that we restore our relationship with nature. Because we’ve kind of lost that. And with that, we realize that we are, as it were, one piece with nature ourselves. No less than 1.5 kg of our weight consists of bacteria, and they are crucial for life.” 

Joris Jansen's natural YOKUU pearl

Cleansers from nature, they exist. So why not use them? Jansen went into the woods to develop his YOKUU pearl and started rooting in the rich top layer in search of the right bacteria. “It was really no easy task to find the right cleaning bacteria among all the billions of bacteria,” he says. “But after intensive research into safety and effectiveness in the lab, I had found five super champions that I could cultivate further through fermentation. The end result is an army of good bacteria that, together with a few effervescent elements, are compressed into a sparkling pearl full of life – to a healthy cleaning year!” 

City of Antwerp, clean gesture 

What also helped was the support that the entrepreneur received from the City of Antwerp. In recent years, the city has been strongly committed to the digital, circular and creative economy and wants to support and accommodate start-ups in this. “When I saw the call for project submission, I didn’t hesitate for a moment”, says Jansen. “The city made 1 million euros available to seven companies to develop their ideas. I was one of the contenders, among 130 others.” 

“When I heard that YOKUU had passed the selection, it was a confirmation not only of all the work and time I had already invested in it, but also of the huge potential of our product. The city is not going to invest in a project that it sees nothing in. This way I was able to market YOKUU and still count on further support and guidance from the city.” 

YOKUU pearl and spray

Pearls, not for the swine 

And the result? Quite revolutionary. “Unlike other ecological cleaning products, my bacteria produce enzymes on the surface for a long time, in a lower concentration. They provide a gentle, but long-lasting effect, instead of a short and often too aggressive cleaning. My bacteria are living creatures and intelligent cleaners. They produce eco-detergents that break down the dirt. Because they want to survive themselves, they eat dirt”, says Jansen. 

“By the way, it is very easy to work with our product. All you need to do is mist the surface, let the spray work for a while and wipe off with a microfibre cloth. The fifty million good bacteria that you put to work per spray purify invisibly for days.”

“It’s time we started thinking of bacteria as allies, and not adversaries.”

The question is whether people are interested in cleaning with bacteria. Jansen is confident that they are. “It may sound revolutionary or bizarre today, but I think perceptions will change, especially when people become acquainted with the myriad benefits, such as less dust and less odour. It’s time we started thinking of bacteria as allies, not purely as adversaries!” 

“Of course there are bad bacteria, but we can use the good ones to suppress the bad ones. Look at our skin: it’s full of good bacteria, but by scrubbing too much, we disrupt our skin flora, resulting in skin problems. I argue for a new hygiene model that also has room for good bacteria.” 

YOKUU pearl effect

“For example, I see many opportunities in companies and hospitals, where you are already dealing with multi-resistant bacteria that no longer react to any disinfectant. When we tackle and change the micro-ecosystems in businesses and homes, you get a different story. It is a matter of learning to live with bacteria. By the way, I really recommend that everyone visit Micropia in Amsterdam, the only microbe museum in the world. That is where you really learn how important bacteria are for humans.” 

Small powerhouses, big consequences 

You can already buy a starter pack via the website. But Joris’ ambitions extend much further. “YOKUU not only leads to a new way of cleaning, it also introduces a new way of dealing with bacteria in your living environment. A direct result is a much smaller mountain of waste and less water consumption: whoever purchases a cleaning bottle only needs to refill it and add a pearl. Weighing just 3 grams, our cleaning pearl is 100x lighter and 100x smaller than a traditional cleaning product, which consists of 90% water and uses disposable plastic.” 

“In transport, YOKUU drastically reduces CO2 emissions, one of the most important factors in the ecological footprint of cleaning products. In addition, each spray replaces at least 50 disposable plastic containers. This not only makes a difference in PMD waste, but also in the transport of water and the use of chemicals.”

“Well, chemical doesn’t always equal bad, and ‘natural’ isn’t always good either. Everything depends on the nature of the substance and its concentration. We consciously choose natural and healthy (bio-)chemical components. With YOKUU, you go one step further in terms of cleaning: you not only immediately get a visually clean environment, you also leave behind a layer of good bacteria that continues to purify for a long time. This has visible and invisible consequences: less dust and odour, and more good bacteria.” 

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