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Volume 9, Issue 2
December 2016

From Ideas to Reality for Emerging Entrepreneurs

  • Paul Jaques, M.A.
  • Director, Student and Community Engagement
  • Spartan Innovations
  • Neil Kane, M.B.A.
  • Director, Undergraduate Entrepreneurship
  • Michigan State University
MSU Alumnus Joe Johnson is launching the business startup Modern Fitness Dissolvable Protein Scoops

College is the perfect place to push your intellectual and creative boundaries. It is an environment that nurtures expansive thinking, creativity, and ingenuity. So what happens when someone at MSU has a really good idea and they want to put it into action?

When those ideas are taken a step further and produce viable products and services, they also become business startups and turn people with good ideas into entrepreneurs. That is where the Spartan Innovations team can help.

In the last several years, higher education advocates and administrators have recognized the powerful economic catalyst that their researchers and students contribute with new technologies. They have also taken note of today's students and their attitudes about independence. These young people have grown up watching innovators like Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Modcloth founders Susan Gregg Koger and Eric Koger. While these are famous examples now, each started from ideas and humble origins around university settings.

Spartan Innovations is one part of a rich collection of entrepreneurial and innovative resources housed under MSU's Innovation Center (which also includes MSU Technologies and Business Connect). Its role is to turn MSU creative activities, innovative ideas, and/or research technologies into business.

Undergraduate Minor Offers Entrepreneurial Know-How and Experiential Learning

MSU Alumnus Joe Johnson is launching the business startup Modern Fitness Dissolvable Protein Scoops

Neil Kane came to MSU in 2015 to implement the first undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship and innovation, which began during spring semester of 2016. The minor blends learning and doing, putting business sector skills to work in authentic situations.

Kane has a long resume as an entrepreneur. One of his more recent business ventures is Advanced Diamond Technologies, Inc., a company he co-founded in 2003 by licensing technology from Argonne National Laboratory (part of the U.S. Department of Energy). He is regarded as a leading authority on technology commercialization, and in 2007 he received the Outstanding Entrepreneurship honor bestowed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Kane has been an invited witness for the U.S. House of Representative's Subcommittee on Research and Science Education for purposes of technology transfer, and he became a mentor for the NSF's Innovation Corps in 2011.

"MSU is fostering new business growth when they embrace startups. It creates much greater awareness of the innovation and technological advances that spring from universities, and it facilitates vitality and energy for the surrounding economic climate."

Tim Daman
President and CEO, Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce

Kane designs the curriculum to educate students about the entrepreneurial mindset, and to emphasize integrating academic expertise with professional skills and life experience. The minor is geared to all types of disciplines, because an endless variety of careers can require setting up a business or freelance contract. Not everyone launches a blockbuster corporation like Google, but students who become engineers, graphic designers, inventors, social workers, doctors, musicians, veterinarians, lawyers, writers, or accountants may establish their own company, whether immediately after graduation or in the future. They may also become employers and contributing participants in the local or regional economies.

Business Startup Preparations

Paul Jaques works with the undergraduate students when they are ready to move their inventions or innovative ideas into the competitive world of business startups. As the director of student and community engagement, he focuses on connecting students with funding, marketing, research, web development, financing, and an assortment of other services, as well as community partners who can provide assistance.

Jaques collaborates with a variety of community partners, among them the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), and Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). Jaques also works with alumni who have their own successful startups. He continually invites and encourages current students to access the network MSU has cultivated.

"We have been building this ecosystem for more than four years," said Jaques. "We have some truly inspired ideas being generated at MSU, and we are seeing these ideas emerge as exciting business ventures."

Community Partners and Participation

"I could not have made this much progress without help from Spartan Innovations. They helped me make connections that have really made a difference in our progress."

Joe Johnson
President and Founder of Modern Fitness

The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce works with Spartan Innovations to create opportunities and initiatives that impact economic gains.

"MSU is fostering new business growth when they embrace startups. It creates much greater awareness of the innovation and technological advances that spring from universities, and it facilitates vitality and energy for the surrounding economic climate," said Tim Daman, president and CEO of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"We see young people who are innovative and creative, with energy to work hard and take the risks associated with running their own business," said Tim Daman. "It really inspires the business community, and it adds enthusiasm and vibrancy to our already dynamic private sector."

Joe Johnson, President, Founder, and CEO of Modern Fitness

One emerging entrepreneur who utilized MSU's entrepreneurship offerings is Joe Johnson, a 2016 finance graduate from the Eli Broad College of Business.

As the senior captain of the MSU wrestling team, Johnson successfully juggled academics and athletics, earning the President's Award for the male graduating senior with the highest cumulative GPA. Despite his demanding schedule, Johnson pursued an idea he had that grew from his dedication to fitness and nutrition.

During years of wrestling, watching his weight, and boosting his nutritional levels, Johnson consumed protein powder. The seriously dedicated, like Johnson, purchase big tubs and scoop abundant amounts of powder into shakers, blenders, or cups. Some negative consequences of using the powders are that they are messy, the large containers are bulky to store, and they are inconvenient to transport to different venues.

He discovered Spartan Innovations during his junior year at MSU. "They have the resources that gave me the ability to pursue my ideas. The tasks that seemed impossible, were possible," he said.

Johnson's idea was to bundle the 100 percent whey isolate protein powder into premeasured, dissolvable "scoops." Working with scientists, he has developed an all-natural, grass-fed protein supplement with six ingredients that is fast absorbing, fat free, and gluten free. Paul Jaques worked with Johnson and connected him with people who could also help, including Tony Willis, director of the new economy division at LEAP (Lansing Economic Area Partnership).

Johnson is now the president and founder of Modern Fitness with a product called Dissolvable Protein Scoops. His wife, Megan Johnson, is his business partner.

"Through Spartan Innovations we've received general consultation, mentoring, and initial funding for a 3-D model prototype. The product has a patent pending, and that was another grant they helped us get so that we could apply for the patent and work with an attorney," said Johnson.

"I see the potential of these prepackaged, dissolvable protein scoops benefiting people in so many different directions," said Johnson. Maybe the military will find them appealing because of the ability to transport large quantities with fewer transportation or packaging issues, especially for soldiers in the field. Or, I think about devoting some of the scoops' capital to non-profit work−maybe sending the product into countries where people have nutritional deficits from extreme poverty, or hurricane, flooding or earthquake damage."

"There's a big difference being an actual company, rather than an idea," said Johnson. "I had the concept, turned it into a business plan, refined the plan, and then found someone to further refine the plan. Even then, you're never done. The process opened my eyes to opportunities and concerns."

Johnson has always considered himself entrepreneurial-minded, and acknowledges that he has experienced failures. According to Neil Kane and others familiar with business startups, it is an important part of the learning experience for enthusiastic risk takers.

"I've launched three or four other businesses, and learned a lot from each failure, in different ways. Ultimately, I'm glad I checked each of those ideas out and I've learned that I shouldn't be afraid to pursue something," said Johnson.

Johnson credits Paul Jaques, the Spartan Innovations team, and the community partners with contributing toward his progress to date. He is finishing a test run of 600 units, and there will be a Kickstarter campaign along with a product launch in January.

"I could not have made this much progress without help from Spartan Innovations. I was able to access opportunities with legal, insurance, accounting, marketing, finance, web design, and travel–along with the seed funding for the prototypes. This is vital groundwork for a startup and one of the first challenges is to access and pay for the expertise. They have helped me make connections that have really made a difference in our progress."

When Johnson talks about his first business, he has a sense of nostalgia and a sense of humor. "My brothers and I sold chocolate lab puppies. It was my first business, and so far it was the most profitable. I am thankful for the assistance MSU has provided, and I'm working hard to succeed again."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of Joe Johnson, Modern Fitness, Inc.