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Making school vending smarter

Vending machines in school dispense lessons to students

October 15, 2018
By Michelle Brisebois

Pommen, stands proudly next to SMRT1: It teaches STEM and dispenses class material. Photos: Tracy Connery

The rise of the healthy food trend is one of the most challenging developments the vending industry has ever addressed.  A cornerstone of the vending industry’s revenue has typically been the school system and given the connection education has to government; as policy has tightened around public health – so have the food options for vending.  

The vending industry has no personal quarrel with the shift to less processed, healthier foods but these types of products do pose operational challenges. They must be monitored and replenished more frequently and the margins are often thinner. Without healthier food options boards are increasingly removing vending machines from the schools. It’s a big blow to an important sector. It almost makes you wish vending machines could dispense the school work itself, but Brad Pommen has figured out exactly how to do that.

Pommen’s company SMRT1 Technologies specializes in converting any vending machine into an interactive retailing experience that accepts digital payment, provides an engaging and interactive purchasing process and then uses machine learning to “remember” customer information to guide future purchases.  

SMRT1 Technologies uses the vending machines and the customer interface to dispense STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) projects for students to build in tandem with online support for the student and the teacher. Pommen is also lLab dDirector for Midas Fab Labs in Nelson B.C.  As someone on the front-line of the Maker Movement, Pommen is hard-wired to look for ways to have technology be something we create, not just consume.  


Pommen’s love of STEM learning began as a child, when a relative purchased a VIC-20 computer. His parents noticed his interest and nurtured it, something he’s now doing for the next generation. Pommen started a community Tech Club to give students a place to learn by creating, using the motto: Build, Learn, Share.  

After a short period of time, he quickly found demand for project parts outpaced his ability to hand-deliver each item personally to the meetings. “I needed to figure out how to have the projects available for the students in between meetings so they wouldn’t be held up waiting for the components. I know how important it is to harness that enthusiasm for a new project right away so I figured that a vending machine could be the solution,” said Pommen. That’s when his creative instincts kicked in and the Brain STEM Toolbox was born.

Brain STEM Toolbox is what happens when vending machines receive a brain transplant. These school projects being dispensed aren’t your father’s school assignments.  Depending on the learning goal, the end result could be burglar alarms for your bedroom that takes a picture of your sister breaking in and texts it to your parents, or your own replica of Star Wars’ BB2 robot.  

The BC school curriculum has shifted from a standardized model to an interactive one, which is better for a broader range of learning styles but is less structured and therefore more complex to deliver for the school system. Teachers are no longer in charge of providing the learning – they now shepherd the learning – which is delivered on the Applied Design, Science and Technology (ADST) model.

The students learn by doing and failing and the goal is focused on the process not necessarily the product. Standardized testing and grades are giving way to experiential milestones. “The name SMRT1 is an homage to The Simpsons,” said Pommen. “I tell the students that if I don’t need an “A” in my name then you don’t need A’s either.”

“Ivy League schools are increasingly asking for evidence of projects applicants have worked on rather than focusing solely on grades,” says Nichola Lytle, a parent of children involved in STEM initiatives. British Columbia is leading where other provinces are sure to follow and this means those projects dispensed by the Brain STEM Toolboxes will be in high demand.

The Brain STEM Toolboxes allow the students to purchase components right in the schools with a digital wallet. They can start working on their assignments immediately. Teachers can rest assured that they won’t have to chase parents to get the correct materials without lag time and the parents won’t have to run around to several different stores worrying that they bought the correct component. There are 6 Brain STEM Toolboxes set to roll out this September in BC schools with no doubt more to follow. The chance to defend the school vending sector is very appealing to the vending industry, but there’s a broader retail application here that really blows the doors of opportunity wide open…micro niche pop-up retail.

Vending is an industry ahead of its time. It was created to solve a very basic problem for retailers and customers. It intercepts the customer in their natural habitat and allows them to purchase and possess the product immediately without a physical store or staff to facilitate the purchase. It’s the retailing equivalent of bringing the mountain to Mohammed instead of bringing Mohammed to the mountain. Customers want convenience and what’s more convenient than having the stores come to you?  

Online shopping addresses this issue, but there are additional shipping charges, and until drone delivery is perfected, there is a lag time before receipt of goods. Major retailers continue to close stores and to become more nimble, the industry is embracing pop-up stores as a way to provide a retail experience that goes to the customer.  

Food Trucks have allowed high-end restauranteurs to offer premium dining experiences without the operational costs of traditional restaurants. There is even a group of re-purposed trailers selling vintage clothing and jewelry in Seattle dubbed the Georgetown Trailer Park Mall.  But what of the retailer that already has a store and wants to grow?  

Brad Pommen is actually a “retailing MacGyver” as his technology allows any vending machine to shape-shift into an interactive shopping experience. “A fly-fishing resort could have a Brain STEM Toolbox designed to dispense lures, line and bait next to the river in the Lodge. The touch screen could guide them to the best purchase based on their goals for the excursion. If they want to fish for trout for example, the screen will give them tips on what depth to cast their line and tell them what to purchase to improve their odds of catching something by utilizing real-world input, such as weather, fishing experience or catch history from other outdoors enthusiasts,” said Pommen.  

The technology is cost effective making it accessible to retailers of any size.  “For less than $10,000 we can create a machine that showcases whatever product the retailer wants to vend and install the custom hardware into the machine tailored to the desired shopping experience,” said Pommen.  It offers a retailer the opportunity to test a new market before opening a new permanent location or target one outside of their current geography unencumbered by significant capital investment, operating and labour costs.

Pommen will be showcasing his smart vending machine at the CAMA Expo October 26 – 27 at Village Conference Centre, The Blue Mountains, Ontario. Attendees can see the technology in action and start to think about how this solution can take grow their vending contracts. The loss of the processed snack food business may just be the best/worst thing to ever happen to the vending industry. o

Michelle Brisebois is a marketing consultant specializing in digital content strategy and retail/ in-store activation. Michelle has worked in the food, pharmaceutical, financial services and wine industries. She can be reached at