The Inventor's Mindset
HOW JOHN LERT ’64 IMAGINED TECHNOLOGY TO CHANGE THE GROCERY INDUSTRY—AND IS BRINGING IT TO REALITY
By Erin Dentmon, Advancement Writer
IN THE WORLD JOHN LERT '64 ENVISIONS, ALMOST EVERYONE WHO SHOPS AT A GROCERY STORE WILL HAVE A HIGHER QUALITY OF LIFE THAN THEY DO NOW. IT'S A BOLD IDEA TO SAY THE LEAST. WHAT'S EVEN MORE BOLD IS HOW HE'S DEDICATED THE PAST QUARTER-CENTURY TO INVENTING WAYS TO MAKE IT HAPPEN.
It only takes a few minutes of talking to John, an inventor and entrepreneur living in the Boston area, to realize he has one of those minds that works differently than everyone else’s. He asks more questions. He doesn’t stop until he has an answer.
“What separates a practicing inventor from other people is the act of will it takes to go out and invest the time and effort to test the idea and see if you can make it work,” he says. “My becoming an entrepreneur is essentially a way of trying to bring my inventions to life and creating value for shoppers and retailers.”
The power of original thinking to improve lives across the globe captivated John when he read the works of inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller as a young adult—and he wanted to be an original thinker, too, using his own ideas to improve the world. Remarkably, he’s already succeeded several times over.
He’s aiming to do it again as the founder and CEO of Alert Innovation and inventor of the Alphabot, a robotic order-picking system that uses automation to select groceries for shoppers.
WHEN JOHN WALKED across the stage at his Westminster commencement in 1964, his plans for life were uncertain. He enjoyed his history classes with Emmett Wright as the teacher, so he majored in history when he arrived at the University of Virginia. Maybe he’d be an attorney, he thought. But after graduating from UVA and spending a few years working as an Army courier, John realized he wanted a career in which he could create.
“That was the inspiration of Buckminster Fuller: Create. Solve problems. Add value,” John says. “I saw business as a possible way to do that.”
He went to business school and, in his second job after earning a master’s degree, he worked in finance for a company that owned television stations. It didn’t take long for a problem to grab his imagination.
He soon learned television stations were essentially only bound by an “honor code” to air commercials when they accepted payments. There was no way to track their activity. That wasn’t good enough for John.
So he did what he does best: he investigated.
“I kept thinking about it, and I kept talking to our station engineer and learning about the television signal and what it would take to monitor it,” John remembers. “I ended up inventing a solution that I thought was better than anything that had been attempted before; I left my job and started pursuing that solution.”
After spending a few years in day jobs while working on the side with engineers and consultants to build a prototype of a system to verify commercials had aired, John eventually sold his patent to the A. C. Nielsen television ratings division and led the development of the technology and the Nielsen Monitor-Plus service, which is still used today.
John admits that the story of a financial analyst who decided to solve an engineering problem is a wild one. “Leaving my job and pursuing this invention—I had no business doing that. I was not an engineer. I had never studied technology. I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “Why should I think I could come up with an answer that teams of engineers had not yet solved? Most people would not want to take that risk, but I had learned not to put limits on myself. I felt I had a contribution to make and that I should go ahead and try to do it.”
BUT LET'S GET BACK to the grocery store. After leaving Nielsen, John worked in marketing research, where he started to learn about supermarket retailing. He realized something: the supermarket was ripe for innovation. He asked himself what the perfect supermarket shopping experience might look like and came up with the idea for a store in which an automation system could dispense paackaged goods from the “center store,” like a giant vending machine. He envisioned this system giving customers the flexibility to order electronically, either from home or from an in-store kiosk.
The idea of freeing up the time millions of people spend at the grocery store captivated him. He continued working for various companies to earn a living, all the while imagining the possibility of automating the supermarket. So, he kept learning as much as he could.
He studied retailers’ problems. He studied his own shopping trips. He studied the history of the grocery industry.When he worked as a product manager for a company that supplied barcode scanners to food retailers, he learned about supply chains and how technology products are developed. He also attended numerous trade shows and realized there really was no technology that existed that could automate the grocery store.
He later worked for a company that developed customer technologies like self-checkout systems, a job he describes as “better than a graduate-level program studying store and merchandising operations.”
Each of these jobs helped him put together the puzzle pieces of retail automation. In 2001, he arrived at an approach in which small mobile robots would bring containers to a centralized workstation where a store employee (or maybe even another robot) would consolidate the ordered products and bag them for the customer. Since no one else was working on this kind of solution, John started working on designs himself.
John secured funding from the country’s largest grocery wholesaler in 2007 to solve a similar problem: automating the distribution center with mobile robots. The company successfully developed this “case-picking” technology, but during the 2009 financial crisis, John sold his stake in the company, now known as Symbotic, to his investor/partner.
In 2011, armed with much deeper knowledge about manufacturing, technology development, and the role of leading a company as CEO, John returned to the problem of your grocery-store headache.
John’s passion for solving the problems of the grocery store becomes even more evident when he starts talking about the last big grocery innovation.
John’s voice picks up when he talks about Clarence Saunders, who in 1916 pioneered a self-serve store where customers didn’t have to wait for a clerk to select their purchases—an operating model that let him slash his prices by 20 percent and quadruple his product assortment. It didn’t take long for food retailers everywhere to adopt the model, unable to attract customers using the old model.
“When I think about ‘What would you like to do when you grow up?’ for me, that was all about what kind of contribution I can make.”
“He created a dramatically better customer experience with more choice, better prices, and at the same time, a more efficient operation for the store. That’s what shifted the paradigm,” John says. “I thought that if I could design a system that was low enough in cost and met the requirements for speed, reliability, storage density, and those kinds of things, I could shift the paradigm again. It could improve the both the customer experience and retailer profitability in a quantum way.”
ALPHABOT ROBOTS MOVE ACROSS AND UP AND DOWN A MULTI-LEVEL, 20,000 SQUARE-FOOT TRACK OUT OF CUSTOMERS' SIGHT TO PICK SHELF-STABLE ITEMS.
And that’s the part that really excites him: doing something that could actually change the world.
“When I think about ‘What would you like to do when you grow up?’ for me, that was all about what kind of contribution I can make,” he says. “I found something I could do that could change the world. How many times does an opportunity like that come around?”
So how do the robots come into play? John thinks his robotic system, the Alphabot, can take on the chore of getting most of your groceries for you. John and Bill Fosnight, another accomplished inventor with extensive automation experience, invented Alphabot in 2015.
The robots fetch items at a rate of 800 per hour (a 10-fold increase in efficiency!) and deliver them to an employee, who takes care of the final steps to fulfill your order, though John’s company is developing technology to handle those final steps as well.
A store employing Alphabot technology can eliminate some of the least pleasant aspects of your trip to the grocery store, like navigating up and down the middle aisles, where you might need to turn around for something you forgot seven aisles over while dodging all the other shoppers and their carts.
The Alphabot doesn’t pick fresh produce or meats since each customer has his own preferences—avocados that are ready to eat versus those that need a few more days on the counter. But with most items from the middle aisles taken care of, customers can make their own fresh selections in the store and receive their robot-picked shelf-stable items at checkout or have their fresh orders fulfilled by store employees for pickup or delivery.
Now in partnership with America’s largest grocer, Alphabot puts Walmart at the forefront of automated grocery technology when forecasters are projecting exponential growth in online ordering. Right now, online orders represent about 3 percent of total grocery spending. Within five years, that share is expected to grow to 20 percent. Those online orders can be filled quicker and more accurately using Alphabot robots.
“This is going to be a transformative impact to Walmart’s supply chain,” Walmart’s senior manager of pickup automation and digital operations Brian Roth said in a statement about the launch of the Alphabot. “Alphabot is what we think of as micro-fulfillment—an inventive merger of e-commerce and brick and mortar methods.” Walmart’s senior vice president of digital operations, Tom Ward, told the Los Angeles Times that the company plans to continue growing its use of alternative fulfillment methods like Alphabot: “You cannot grow by picking one order in one shopping cart at a time.”
AS JOHN AND THE 190 EMPLOYEES at Alert Innovation continue refining the Alphabot’s design, he’s focused on continuing to scale the company while preserving a culture where employees meet high expectations while finding fulfillment in the work.
“As CEO, I try to enable my employees to find meaning through work like I’ve been able to find,” he says.
The road to creating the Alphabot was anything but straight. But John’s belief in his idea, and his love for inventing, kept him going. “Every time I got to a dead end, I still felt like I had advanced the state of the art,” he remarks.
While he was “throwing away one design after another” in search of the one that could solve the core problem without creating new ones, John also looked for a financial investor. Turned off by previous venture capital experience, he sought a strategic partner who would find value in his inventions beyond equity growth.
John came close to signing contracts with retailers twice in the early 2010s. Just barely missing out on a contract with a German retailer tanked John’s motivation for several months.
Walmart entered the picture in 2016. John secured funding from the retail giant, officially establishing Alert Innovation. John and Bill grew a team of talented engineers to develop the highly complex technology that runs the Alphabot system. After less than three years of development, Alphabot debuted in a Walmart Supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire, in mid-2019.
When John talks about what might be next for Alert Innovation, he’s drawn back to what invigorated his career as an inventor in the first place: the ability to change the world.
The way he sees it, his company’s mission only starts with retail picking. Maybe the next thing is coffee. John roasts coffee for his employees and has been daydreaming about how he can use robots to bring fresh roasts to more people. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever happens, know this: it will be innovative. It will solve a problem. And John is the kind of guy who will stick to solving that problem until it gets done.
“We want to continue innovating and stretching the company. I’m not certain how we’re going to do it, but I have faith we’re going to get it done.”
50 Years—and a Lot of Life—Later
Westminster, John says, is the first place he learned to avoid setting arbitrary limits on himself.
“Being with faculty who are such great teachers and among students who were so smart—those two things made me develop a self-confidence not to put limits on what I could do,” he says. “I stopped questioning if I was capable or ‘smart enough.’ Those thoughts only put limitations on what I was able to accomplish.”
In the 50-plus years since graduating, he and his classmates—born in the first years marked as the Baby Boomer generation—have now lived through some of the most pivotal moments in modern history. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated during their senior year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act the summer after graduation, and the United States entered the Vietnam War during their college years.
Fifty years after leaving Westminster, John reconnected with many of the classmates he’d lost touch with over the years at their 50th Reunion in April 2014. Memories like Mr. Wright’s history class, time on the football field, and hanging out in The Hut came flooding back. Friendships were formed and re-formed.
“It was a meaningful experience to reconnect with people who had not been part of my life for decades,” John says. “Westminster was such an important part of my formative years.”
The class’s 50th Reunion chairs, Susie Soper ’64 and John Barge ’64, continue to plan yearly infor- mal reunions after seeing how their classmates connected because of the 50th Reunion events and the candid, sometimes vulnerable, stories people revealed about themselves in the class’s Reunion book.
“We were children in 1964. It has been great getting to know people on a level we didn’t before,” Susie says. “When people have aged, everyone has so much empathy for what everyone else is going through.”
For John Lert, the weekend spent catching up over careers and children (John has three, all grown), high points and heartaches, and the memories of classmates now gone launched a new appreciation for Westminster. Every year since the 50th Reunion, he’s made the trip back to Atlanta for the informal class reunion. He often catches the Golden Wildcat reception, a party for all alumni who graduated from Westminster more than 50 years prior, while he’s here.