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.”
Vade’s high-energy pitch, which aired in November, impressed the sharks. The Johnsons sought $250,000 in exchange for 10 percent of the company, but Cuban offered $350,000 for 20 percent of Vade. While the Johnsons were debating with Cuban, guest shark and former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez jumped into the fray and offered to add $350,000 of his own money to Cuban’s stake. When all was said and done, Vade had secured $700,000 in exchange for 40 percent equity—a fairly steep sacrifice, but Johnson says he couldn’t be happier with the arrangement.
“It’s the dream team; it’s what we wanted,” he continues. “We knew Vade would be in both of their wheelhouses.”
So how does it feel, practically being partners in a business with Cuban and Rodriguez? “I can’t really share how the partnership works,” Johnson says, “but they are exceeding expectations in terms of being personal and engaging. It’s been a crazy thing to continue to talk to them.” (I asked: the Johnsons have not yet met Rodriguez’s girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez.)
The name of the game for Vade now is growth, and quickly. “We’re learning where we have gaps really fast,” Johnson says. “But it’s a good problem to have. We’re excited to maintain traction.”
In 2019, Johnson says we can expect to see Vade being sold on store shelves as well as online. The five-person team is also planning to raise more investment capital and double its headcount. In addition, Vade is developing pre-workout supplements it wants to launch by summer, and the company hopes to eventually create an entire line of portable, convenient nutritional products.
“We’re already working on some pretty big partnerships,” he adds. “It’s been a ride. I like risk. Megan doesn’t, but she loves me.”