Brad Pommen is the President and Founder of SMRT1 Technologies. He and our CEO Drew Munro talk about the journey to upcycle a multi-billion vending industry, building technology that retrofits onto almost any vending machine in the world, powering them with incredible data analytics and allowing them to move into exciting new markets.
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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to The Wellness Hub Podcast, a show dedicated to uncovering the future of healthy living. Each week, we aim to bring you content that supports your personal health journey through insightful conversations with amazing guests. We explore various topics ranging from healthy eating, technology, fitness, mindfulness and more. Now, let's join our host, Drew Munro, Co-Founder and CEO of UpMeals, a Vancouver-based food tech startup on a mission to make healthy meals accessible through technology.
Drew Munro (00:34):
Hello and welcome to The Wellness Hub. We are so grateful to have you here with us for wellness Wednesdays. Every week, we'll be hosting amazing guests and having insightful conversations into food, technology, mindfulness, entrepreneurship and more, and it is our sincere hope that you find these conversations valuable and insightful on your own wellness journey. I'm so excited for the conversation with our special guests tonight. Imagine looking at a heavily-established, multi-billion dollar a year industry and thinking to yourself, "You know what? I think I can improve upon this," and then starting a company that achieves just that.
Drew Munro (01:11):
The industry that I'm speaking about is the vending industry, and our guest tonight is a true innovator who built technology that retrofits onto almost any vending machine in the world, powering them with incredible data analytics and allowing them to move into exciting new markets. Please welcome our guest this evening, President and Founder of SMRT1 Technologies right here in B.C., Mr. Brad Pommen. Brad, welcome to The Wellness Hub.
Brad Pommen (01:39):
Thanks for having me, Drew.
Drew Munro (01:41):
Brad, you are a self-proclaimed tech enthusiast. Where did your love for technology begin and what has sustained it all these years?
Brad Pommen (01:52):
It really started about six years old when my parents bought me that first computer. Just everything I could do, I could create anything I wanted, and over the years, I've just been able to nurture that and grow it, and it's been a lifelong passion that I've been able to turn into a career.
Drew Munro (02:10):
It wasn't something that you discovered later in life. This was right from you were just a youngin, and you were all in from that early age. Did you know from that young age that this is exactly what you wanted to do with your life?
Brad Pommen (02:23):
Yeah. By the time I hit a teenager, it was really evident that this was my calling. I found high interest in just exploring it. I must have taken my computer apart a dozen times and put it back together successfully.
Drew Munro (02:39):
I guess the next question that I find so interesting, as a guy who has sort of been spending his whole life in sort of the high-tech space, what brought you into the vending space, which historically, is not known as a high-tech space? What need did you see there that was unfulfilled?
Brad Pommen (02:55):
About 10 years ago, I was building tech clubs for kids in community, and it was at that time in the schools and universities I started to notice a lot of the vending technology being removed because its only purpose was chips and chocolate bars and soda, and with the Healthy Food Movement, it was seeing an end of life, and I really thought that there might be some way to be able to reuse these millions of machines that are being just sent to the landfill or the electronics recycling.
Drew Munro (03:25):
That's a really interesting angle as well, is that you almost, it was coming from a position of not wanting to waste what was already built, but to improve upon it and make it better, so almost kind of like an upcycling, and I never thought of your service as being there. Was that how you envisioned it from the start or did it sort of grow into that?
Brad Pommen (03:44):
Yeah. What I discovered very early on is my notions of what smart vending machines were or could be wasn't really a thing, and so understanding that the brain inside of a vending machine is really simple, I couldn't ask it to do complex things, so having to give it a new brain, a brainstem is what we effectively did.
Drew Munro (04:06):
At what point ... I'm assuming this may be started as something that was almost like a challenge for yourself to see if you could do it and figure it out. At what point did you say, "Hey, I'm onto something, and this should be a business and I'm going all in on this"?
Brad Pommen (04:21):
Yeah, it was about a year before we incorporated. I started to dabble in proof of concepts, bought that first vending machine and tried to figure out how to hack it. There was no instruction manuals online going to teach you how to do this, so I was able to wrap my 20 years of previous technology software and hardware experience and find ways forward that then I would be able to put a team together to solve those problems better than just a proof of concept.
Drew Munro (04:49):
And so as you've now tried to sort of infuse technology into historically what's a very traditional industry, what have been some of the biggest challenges that you faced in trying to make your vision become a reality and how did you overcome them?
Brad Pommen (05:06):
Part of the biggest hurdles has been trying to reinvision the industry itself. The vending machine world has been around for 100 years, and really 50 years, it's not changed. There's not much new technology under the hood, so there was a very little incentive for the vending industry to actually adopt this new technology because it cost money, and everybody knows that there's low margins on those chips and chocolate bars so there really wasn't even a path forward, so it was having to bypass and go around the existing vending world in order to find a way forward.
Drew Munro (05:44):
What was the response from ... I'm assuming that you had to reach out to some of these large, established kind of vending companies who were doing this. What was their response? Did they sort of, did they laugh you out the door? Did they say, "This is good. we're interested, but call me when you've got 1,000 machines"? What was the response from them?
Brad Pommen (06:02):
Yeah. Very much, this is something they've seen change trying to come forward, and in most cases, the technology wasn't yet ready for prime time, and that would have been maybe not good enough processors. The biggest hurdle was probably not having high quality touch screens that were cheap enough, so it's one thing to build a fancy box, but if it costs $100,000, nobody else can afford to apply that to their industry.
Drew Munro (06:31):
It's no secret that we've got a great partnership here and you're a great valued partner for what we're doing here at UpMeals, in our healthy food accessibility mission. I remember calling you almost more than a year ago as you were driving down the mountain from Nelson, B.C., and sort of pitching you on what we were trying to do with UpMeals and this crazy idea, and you not laughing me out the door meant a lot to me then when a lot of people were. I'd love to hear just sort of from your end, how has the experience been working with us at UpMeals and the team and the collaboration that we've been building?
Brad Pommen (07:08):
Yeah. It's really important for us to understand our client's motivations. Why are they in business? I don't want to sell you on a solution, I want to help build a solution with your team, and that's what's been great, is the team at UpMeals knew what they wanted to do, was very inquisitive of how we might arrive at at an end that was favorable and achievable, and at the end of the day, it's been just a great riffing back and forth, "How can we do this better? How can we take something that is a 60-second transaction and make this achievable and reproducible, and not just for yourselves, but is there a way to make this palatable for all industry?," and you guys have been the best test case yet.
Drew Munro (07:55):
Well, thank you for saying that, Brad, and the same goes for you guys. I know we throw a lot of crazy ideas at you guys, and you guys have executed on almost every single one, so that means a lot. One of the things that I love about working with you, Brad, is just your passion and how just genuinely excited you are for what you do, so what I'd love to know for you personally, what excites you the most about where SMRT1 Technologies is going and the future of vending?
Brad Pommen (08:23):
I really think convenience and access to services is so important. It's just been heightened by the pandemic. These are all things that were ingrained in my company already, but really, through the experience of COVID and even just shifts in healthy eating patterns, it really, it shows how people need to access services, need assistance from these devices. We don't want to sell you something, we want you to join the brand, bang the drum, be a part of the cycle that gets other people excited as well, so through demonstration.
Drew Munro (09:01):
We are in a wellness podcast. We're here on wellness Wednesdays, so one of the things that probably is not very high on most busy startup entrepreneurs' to-do list is self-care, so I'm curious from your ... You're a busy entrepreneur. You're on the road right now, and I'm grateful that you've dialed into this, to our podcast here. What advice do you have for our listeners when it comes to unwinding? How do you take care of yourself and practice self-care?
Brad Pommen (09:31):
I think it's very important to find your passion in life, and lucky for me, I really have and I really do count my lucky stars, and it also aligns with the career that I envisioned myself in, and so myself, I'm a motorcycle rider. I take the afternoon off and go for a spin around. I live in the mountains, and having lifestyle as a thing that this happens every day is really important, and I think that the mental health is really a part of that. When you look at, again, everything is now closed or limited access, or you have difficulty getting outside, I'm in a space that I'm 300 yards to my nearest neighbor, so I'm in the mountains already, so we're used to social distancing, but at the same time, we've also discovered that being able to correspond with people through Zoom has opened up the ability to communicate with anybody anywhere, and I think that's really important, is having that ability. Just like me and you talk on a regular basis, you still need that lifeline of friendship and communication and even just comradery that otherwise if you don't open those Zoom windows, right now, you're not getting that mental health break. Even if it is, you have to steer away from work to get the enjoyment side of it as well.
Drew Munro (10:50):
Yeah, and so important. I'm glad you touched on staying connected. It seems like we have more tools to stay connected than ever before, but we feel more disconnected than ever before in some ways, especially now. That's a really important point. One of the things that I think is interesting that I'd love for you to share with our listeners is the different industries that SMRT1 works in, because I think when people are thinking of you as a vending machine or a smart vending technology provider, they're thinking of exactly what you described, chips and chocolate bars. Could you talk about some of the industries that have responded to your solutions and some of the fascinating work that you're doing outside of food?
Brad Pommen (11:30):
Yeah. Prior to COVID, we had started a pilot with some tourism partners and we had several machines that were all interconnected in the Kootenay communities, and it was really well-received. When COVID happened, obviously then, that dried up as a viable business method, but we had already started to explore a few other areas as well, so public health was one that has been a real eye-opener for us because whether it's COVID testing or it's access to safe supplies through our public health and mental health partners, or access to new retail channels, such as cannabis or age verified sales, stuff like that, it really shows that this is a piece that can enable business to continue no matter, whatever the pandemic or events that are going on around us. You can still connect to your customers as a brand, provide social distancing and instant access to the products that they're seeking, and they can do it from their cellphone now, so even better that they can find you and it might just be around the corner from them.
Drew Munro (12:40):
That's so fascinating that the healthcare industry has responded to such a kind of innovative solutions, such as yours. You referenced some of the work you're doing with the COVID testing partners. Could you describe, how did those machines behave? How do people interact with them and what's the purpose of them?
Brad Pommen (12:59):
Yeah. In any industry, it typically, the retail or service chain involves a person, and that's an employee and that can be then the customer. Putting both of them in harm's way during COVID is unacceptable, so if there's a chance that we can reduce the contact points, let's say you're there to pick up a prescription, that would be something we envision our technology helping enable, and so right now, today, we're doing things that don't require a prescription. Typically, they're being handed over a public health desk so we just have to meter and measure the results and administration of those types of dispensing. Beyond that, it's basically, we're fulfilling business and we're finding ways to, again, make sure that business can have continuity, and I don't think there's anything more important today than the interruptions we've had are going to continue for a long time, so how can we now make our systems better, make sure that people are safe, as well as customers are still able to connect to the brands and the products they need and love, and provide that full feedback loop?
Drew Munro (14:06):
It's amazing what you guys are doing, so I would love for our listeners to know if we want to know more about SMRT1 Technologies, where can we go to learn more?
Brad Pommen (14:16):
Yeah. We've got a Facebook group and we've got LinkedIn, or you can visit our website, which is SMRT1.ca. You know what's another really great way to find us? Google smart vending machine, and we are the number one link on Google, and that's been three years running because we really try and tell a great story and back that up with a lot of documentation and tutorials, because just as we had to struggle our way into this new market, now we're getting four or five years later all the businesses that want to know, "Is this a reality or is this science fiction still?," so we're still providing a very big piece of our services, education.
Drew Munro (14:55):
I have to ask a question now. We haven't talked really about food for this whole interview, but I need to know, Brad, what is your favorite go-to meal to make yourself feel good and nourished?
Brad Pommen (15:11):
I definitely have to say I love the falafel salad. I think that one's really cool or the falafel wrap. Those are amazing, and some of the fresh juices you guys have. That one really excites me. I know it's not for everybody, but having the drink with turmeric in it, that's an invigorator, right there. That wakes you right up.
Drew Munro (15:34):
I appreciate you referencing UpMeal's products there. You've certainly eaten a lot of them on your trips back and forth from the mountains to our office here. I did read in an interview with you, I think, and I'm paraphrasing here, so please correct me if I'm wrong, that your ideal vending machine would be one that morphs into a motorcycle and vends bacon. True or false?
Brad Pommen (15:54):
That is absolutely true and actually, we have a bacon named after us. It's called [one smart 00:16:00] bacon.
Drew Munro (16:01):
Brad Pommen (16:02):
Drew Munro (16:03):
Well, now I know what I'm doing my next time when I'm up in Nelson. I think we're going to try to take a couple of audience questions here if that's okay with you. Let me just have a quick look. What skills would you recommend to our listeners? What skills do I need to develop and succeed and grow as an entrepreneur?
Brad Pommen (16:25):
Yeah. I think this is the opportunity now for a new form of retail and services, and this is going to require a set of skills that is related to programming or developing. What's really interesting is that we've adopted the same technologies that are built in standard web programming, so that now, everybody that's got those set of skills can actually apply that, and we're building out that framework. As an entrepreneur, I don't want the technology to get in the way. My goal would be that someday this is as easy as signing up for Shopify, uploading your products and hitting go, and placing a machine and testing the machine if it works, great, and as an entrepreneur, you can then test your idea because if we've removed the technology hurdle, I've done my job well.
Drew Munro (17:15):
Awesome. Do you have a particular vending machine that is your favorite that you've installed and why? I know for you, that's probably like choosing one of your children, but do you have a particular memorable vending machine that you've worked on and why?
Brad Pommen (17:32):
I think the public health vending machines are one of my favorite, and it's because it's showing the reach. We don't charge for products because those are typically free, handed out through a public health clinic, and to see the number of people that need access to this in 24-hour access really gives me the warm fuzzies to know that we could be saving a life, and even if we're not saving a life, we're helping improve a life, and if that's nourishment, whether that is supplies to heal a wound or just to build and connect to services. Where can I find a shelter, or where can I get my next meal? There's a lot of population that don't have phones, and this can be one of the outlets that actually allows us to correspond and measure results that can be shared with federal agencies to patch the network where it might be rural remote setting or even an urban setting. It really doesn't matter where these machines are, but that they're helping people.
Drew Munro (18:34):
I love how broad your vision is, Brad. We have actually a couple more questions here. I'm not sure if we're going to get to all these questions that are coming in from Facebook here. As someone who works in tech yourself, do you feel like you ever start to get tired of being online? Do you need to detach after work? Do you feel the need to get offline?
Brad Pommen (18:54):
Yeah. In the evenings, I normally have a couple hours downtime with my family. I've got two little girls that are five and seven, so it's really important that about half of my time is spent at home with them, working from home, and COVID's actually enforced that, reinforced it evne is a better word, but that really, at the end of the day, offline is not something I do well. I'm a connected guy, so my wife going to the cabin, she loves a week where there's no tech. 15 minutes of arriving, I'm looking for a cellphone signal, strong enough to check my email.
Drew Munro (19:31):
When it comes down to what you're doing ... This is a question coming in from Facebook, "Are touchscreens the last great innovation in vending? Where else can vending machines go where they're not currently going?"
Brad Pommen (19:44):
This is just the start. Coil vending machines, lockers, self-checkout and pickup, these are becoming the common place representations now. If you walk into any department store, 50% of the tills are now self-service with one person managing six or eight or 10 of them. I think that the innovations are really just starting. We're starting to build the lines of communication between the customer and the companies that want their products out there, and really, there's the need for an ecosystem.
Brad Pommen (20:19):
Again, if it's going to be that I just want you to be able to do business, I have to take care of a lot of layers underneath just the user interface, security, payment, options of how the data gets there, because not everybody has a great cellphone connection and not every single connected vending machine is not on a choppy Wi-Fi signal. Things like that can derail most business plans if your machine goes offline. We're really looking at the infrastructure that ensures that even if the internet dropped, can we still do business in some way, or do I have to build a better network, and that might mean that I have to make some bigger partners or friends in the telecom industry that might want to build a [seat 00:21:00]? Every vending machine now has a Wi-Fi hotspot. It's a telecom closet in all regards.
Drew Munro (21:06):
That's another sort of just moment from you. You have such a huge, broad vision that's just so, so inspiring. I really, really loved our conversation, Brad. I really appreciate you being here and joining us here on The Wellness Hub. I'm so excited to be able to share this with our listeners and I can't wait to see what Smrt1 Technologies does next. Thank you so much for being here and being with us tonight.
Brad Pommen (21:34):
Awesome. Thank you, Drew. It's always a pleasure.
Drew Munro (21:41):
I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did, and you are as inspired by Brad's story as I am and from his journey. My question, if you could improve upon one thing in a massive industry, what would it be? We often use terms like disruptive and innovative, and while those are true, could it not be said, but that these are people who simply choose to not accept the status quo and they do something about it? I think too often, we're focused on coming up with the next big idea, the next big thing. Perhaps if we focused on the next big problem to solve or the next status quo that we weren't going to accept, we'd find that innovation that we're looking for, right in that spot.
Drew Munro (22:25):
I'll leave you with this as a parting thought. What status quo will you challenge this upcoming week? I love for you to let us know, and please subscribe to us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube at UpMeals. Thank you for joining us and we will see you next Wednesday right here on The Wellness Hub.