Vade Nutrition Swims Out of MSU and Into “Shark Tank,” Scores $700K
While attending Michigan State University in the mid-2010s, Joe Johnson earned a degree in finance, served as the captain of the school’s wrestling team, and met and married his wife Megan. In between, he found time to dream of starting his own company, but he never imagined he would one day count retired professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez among its backers.
It all started when he met Megan, a former cheerleader at the University of Arizona, at a camp for college athletes a few years ago. They shared a passion for fitness and nutrition, fell in love, and married after his junior year.
Fast forward to 2016. Joe was preparing to take his last final exams and graduate, with potential ideas for a business the couple could start still rattling around in his head. Megan was pregnant at the time with their son Noah. Her water broke early at 29 weeks, so the couple spent a few months in the hospital tending to their son.
“We had time to think through the business ideas we had,” Johnson recalls. He had always been annoyed that the protein powder he took every day only seemed to come in giant, inconvenient, messy tubs. Why couldn’t it be pre-measured and made more portable, he wondered? “There was a lot of travel back and forth to the hospital, and we came up with the concept of pods because it was a real issue we had.”
Not long after Noah was born, the couple co-founded Vade Nutrition. The company produces portable protein powder that comes in edible “pods,” which look a bit like the laundry detergent-filled capsules you throw into the washing machine.
Each Vade pod contains a single serving of whey isolate powder encased in a food-grade film that dissolves in liquid in a few seconds, which Vade says makes for easy mixing and transport. A bag of 30 pods retails for $44.99 on the Vade website, although the product is also sold online through Amazon and GNC.
Soon after the couple came up with the concept, Vade worked with MSU’s Spartan Innovations and The Hatch startup incubator on product development. The company first went about protecting its intellectual property by filing patent applications, which are pending, then sought out product refinement and manufacturing help.
“It took a while to get to the product we have now,” Johnson explains. “There was a lot of trial and error. One of the most difficult things was finding the right people to work with and help take Vade to the next level. It was a long journey.”
The journey may have been long, but it seems to be paying off. In 2017, the couple applied to take Vade on “Shark Tank,” the popular ABC show that features startups pitching to celebrity investors like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. They didn’t make it all the way through the process the first time, so they applied again in 2018 at an open casting call and got on the show.
“Shark Tank is one of those things that fits in our wheelhouse—we love pitching and having fun with it,” Johnson says. “We thought it would be a great opportunity.”
He describes the preparation process before the show as crazy and intense—“there’s a lot I can’t talk about,” he warns—and says the whole experience was utterly surreal. “I’ve been watching the show for about 10 years, so to be standing in the tank didn’t feel like real life. The adrenaline was pumping; I feel like I blacked out most of it.”