Brad Pommen believes vending machines can offer more than candy and chips.
Pommen, the president of Nelson’s SMRT1 Technologies, introduced a machine last week that carries a mix of paid and free items such as naloxone kits, syringes, condoms and sundries like deodorant and toothpaste.
He says the machine provides 24-7 access to products and information in locations with fewer services to deal with the ongoing opioid crisis.
“I really want to be able to connect communities,” said Pommen. “In rural communities, these types of services are far reaching. They need to be everywhere, but typically because of dollars they’re not getting into rural communities.”
The unique machine features a large touchscreen that can show videos on how to use naloxone, connect users to local services such as shelters, display fentanyl alerts and provide data on community needs.
Pommen’s machine is currently set up at ANKORS’ overdose prevention site in Nelson. He said the company is rolling out five other pilot sites over the next three months at locations in Kelowna, Kamloops, Penticton, Surrey and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside before placing up to 20 across Canada.
Cheryl Dowden, executive director of ANKORS, said the machine will be moved out of their office to a downtown location within the coming months.
“We want to move it outside into the community so that after-hours people can access those supplies,” she said. “People who access our services, people who are out in the club scene for the night, they can get some fentanyl test strips, they can get a naloxone kit. This is really for the community in its broadest sense.”
Three years ago Pommen noticed public schools were beginning to retire vending machines. His initial idea was to repurpose them as science kits for kids.
“After we spent about a year and a half building the prototype and getting it all set, we stood back and said holy, this is not something that’s in the rest of the world. We basically then took a bit more time on it to develop it into a fully robust system that can work for any retail industry.”
Six months ago Pommen turned his attention to B.C.’s opioid crisis, which led to 981 deaths in 2019 and 1,542 in 2018. He partnered with Surrey-based NucleusLabs, who provide the machine’s medical technology.
In Nelson, Pommen is offering the machine for free as well as tech support while ANKORS provides the products.
He’s not concerned about the machine being broken into or damaged either once it moves downtown. The touchscreen is Gorilla Glass, which Pommen bangs on to demonstrate its toughness.
“Normally vending machines are quite robust in that sense, you don’t see them broken into that often. Usually they are broken down before they are broken into,” he said.
“So this allows us to use off-the-shelf vending machine technologies. We didn’t have to invent anything new, we just invented a controller that now gave this 30-year-old machine a new lease on life.”
And because it is a vending machine, there are also potato chips for sale.
“Because everybody’s hungry,” said Pommen.