When Matt Bilsky ‘12 ‘14G ‘17 PhD applied to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA) program in 2016, he was writing his dissertation and nearing the end of his research. Bilsky, founder and president of FLX Solutions, Inc., was working on a novel snake-like robot that can drive, drill, and see inside walls to run wires without the mess. The idea came to Bilsky in 2013 when he was supervising and participating in plaster and lath house renovations as a contractor and superintendent of properties for an off-campus landlord in South Bethlehem. Bilsky, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Lehigh, saw an opportunity to revolutionize how wires are run and decided to dedicate his dissertation to developing what is now known as the FLX BOT. The project initially began through his South Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) engineering company, Impossible Incorporated LLC, and has since been spun-off under FLX Solutions.
The FLX BOT is exactly the type of cutting-edge technology that the PITA program seeks to foster. A collaboration among the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Complex Engineered Systems and Lehigh University’s Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy, the PITA program awards grants to Pennsylvania companies, faculty, and students in support of creating and implementing new technologies that will ultimately provide economic benefit to Pennsylvania through knowledge transfer, the discovery of new technologies, and the retention of highly educated students.
For Bilsky, the grant meant evaluating and progressing the key subsystems that power the FLX BOT. He applied to PITA as he was preparing to translate the engineering design work into an actual, realized product. The resulting grant accelerated development by enabling research that led to a complete prototype of the robot—a critical step towards commercialization. Reflecting on the development of the prototype, Bilsky recalls the idea to 3D-print plastic robots as the most impactful accomplishment during that time. “While I was telling [Lehigh graduate student, Xiaolang Wang] that it was going to take a lot of time and money to finish the prototype,” Bilsky said, “I noticed my new 3D printer out of the corner of my eye and realized that I could print the robot.” One month later, Bilsky had a prototype that could drill through wood. Three months later, he had the alpha prototype.
What’s next for the FLX BOT? Bilsky is finishing a beta, pre-production prototype and expects to start field testing with customers in February 2020. He is also focusing on raising seed funding to roll out initial units of the robot in late 2020. As part of that goal, FLX Solutions was recently accepted into a leading startup accelerator funded by the telecom industry. In November, Bilsky won first place in the 2019 Startup Grind Princeton competition, which provides funding to participate in Startup Grind’s Global 2020 conference in Silicon Valley.
Through the PITA program, Bilsky has been able to continue serving as the industry partner for the project, which enables graduate students to work on real-world projects that illustrate the power of technology transfer and industry-academia partnerships. As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania, went to school in Pennsylvania, and continues to live and innovate in Pennsylvania, Bilsky is an example of the talent and creativity that the PITA program aims to support. From the perspective of an entrepreneur, Bilsky notes that the PITA program has afforded him the opportunity to work with world-class researchers and take his pre-revenue startup to the next level by pursuing federal grants and commercialization opportunities. These opportunities have allowed Bilsky to pursue the passion that led him to the idea for the FLX BOT: using engineering to change the world and solve life’s problems.