Snake-like intelligent robots with Matthew Bilsky

Interviewee

Matthew Bilsky, PhD, PE is the inventor of the FLX BOT, and the Founder and CEO of FLX Solutions. He is a licensed Professional Engineer, a Mechanical Engineering professor at Lehigh University, and a former repair/maintenance contractor. In 2017, he was awarded with the Lehigh University Entrepreneurship Educator of the Year.

Matt has a Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. from Lehigh University focused on smart product design, Technical Entrepreneurship, and mechatronics. He holds two additional Lehigh degrees: a BS in Mechanical Engineering with an Electrical Engineering minor and a Master of Engineering degree also in Mechanical Engineering.

Transcript



Elisa Muñoz: Hey Matt, Welcome to the Builder Nation’s podcast. Would you mind introducing yourself?.

Matt Bilsky: For sure. I am Matthew Bilsky, founder and CEO of FLX Solutions. I am a recovering inventor, current inventor, contractor, taking people, rafting, coach skiing, racing, what you name it. But I guess the story that brought us together today is in college. I was helping to maintain some off-campus houses and start working for a landlord. They had a handful of houses at the time. And over the course of five years, grew up to 35 and an apartment building. And every time we'd finished the renovation, they'd be like, “Hey, we forgot to run a wire. Do you mind?” And I like to joke, I was trying to earn my beer money and spend it, not just do it. Like I was pretty good at it, but realized it was a giant pain to really, you know, upgrade these old homes. And I left undergrad.

I'm a Lehigh guy here in Pennsylvania. And so I finished up my undergrad at Lehigh Mechanical Engineering and was debating grad school. And, you know, a few events kind of worked out in my favor that it's like, oh, I can get a free PhD. And I also realized that they were paying me to get my PhD and they're paying me to teach. And that was this epiphany of “Wait, if I'm getting paid to teach and I can do what I want for my research. Right?” And I guess maybe a lot of people haven't thought of it that way, but I did. And I found the right advisor, John, out of our entrepreneurship program at Lehigh. We said, “Hey, why can't you?”

And I'm like, “What am I going to do? I could start a company.” And the way that things worked out is if you're teaching and you pay for it, you get to own your patents. So it all kind of worked together and I'm like, well, “What am I going to do with this opportunity?” And working as a landlord, I'm like, “Wait, I hate running wires. Why don't I invent a robot that you could put in the wall, have it drive through and drill all the wires, no mess, no nothing.” And just so happened that John was a union electrician when he was in grad school. And he was like, “Yeah, that would be great”. And that's what I did. And so now we know the technology as the flex spot, the flex spot here is a one inch diameter snake robot. Every link is identical, has cameras, light sensors.

We can rotate the joints and we actually have the patented ability to extend. And so like any academic, I spent my time working on this problem. And, you know, from day one, it was really about being affordable and all of this, but it was really focused on how do we make a robot that's one inch, it can fit in a wall. And I finished my dissertation and then stayed on as a faculty member, teaching product development at Lehigh for a couple of years. And I left the university at the end of 2018 to go into startup life full time and founded flex solutions, which, you know, here we are, but the flux spot and it was like, “What are we going to do with this technology?”

And I realized, in my opinion, I know this can be a little controversial. Is that full self-driving? We're not really there yet. So if our company doesn't even have to worry about roads, we have to worry about the inside of walls. That's a heck of a problem. So what can we do with this cool snake that we did? And so I've spent the last couple of years as CEO talking to hundreds of people across construction and maintenance, and now I'm a licensed professional engineer. I've been a contractor. So I always enjoyed that construction problem, but spoken to everybody from agriculture to ship inspection to utilities, they'll tell me they have the same problem I have.

They can't get where they need to work and safely do what they need to do. And the way we've really spun this problem around and we distill it is just warehousing and distribution loves to talk about the last mile and inspection and maintenance. It's really that last meter, looking above the ceiling under the floor, can you get into these places and like, say your office over there, somebody bought it and they want to inspect above the ceiling. They gotta make a big old mess, all of this. What if they could just take a flex spot, insert it, have it been devoid of obstacles, this cobalt stick smart inspection system, and really get that last Bader of data starting construction, which I love.

And I'm looking at other industries as we expand and today focused on inspection mapping, but we've also looked at putting tools on the end, doing maintenance. And maybe someday going back to that locomotion with all this data, we collected autonomy, all those sort of things.

Elisa Muñoz: How hard was it for you in order to find investors at an early stage?

Matt Bilsky: Well, I don't know. It never was easy for us. So I mean, maybe for others, it was a snap, your fingers and everything's hunky Dory. But I'd like to think that maybe since we've been working hard at it this whole time, it'll just continue to be a full-time job and a lot of work.

And you definitely learn a lot. Every, you know, everybody talked to is an opportunity to learn how to refine your messaging. And I think, you know, one of the difficult things with us is today, you know, we're hardware to begin with. We need, and I know you've spoken to other hardware founders that we are trying to create the software future that everybody loves. But at the end of the day, you can't write apps until somebody makes an iPhone, right? You can't make a self-driving car unless somebody invented the car, right? So you need to have these fundamental hardware innovations that enable the software that is accounting, revenue, all the stuff that investors tend to love, you still need to create the opportunities for that.

And so right now we're focused on the hardware platform that enables us and, you know, even others at some point to really look at the software side. So, you know, we're going and always raising and that's my job, but let's okay.

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Elisa Muñoz: And how hard was it in order to make the FLX BOT fully autonomous?

Matt Bilsky: Well, it's hard because software's hard and then hardware, you've got to use software and then you gotta write firmware that actually tells the hardware what to do. And you've got to build the thing. So for us, I mean, I think a lot of my work and I'm a mechatronics per se, which means I'm really good at mechanical electrical. I think it was some software, but I am, you know, I can make some firmware, but I'm not a robot system. I don't do computer vision. I can't do the path planning. That's where I find experts for that. This was the mechatronics guy, fitting everything into this, you know, one inch tube. We have motors, gearboxes, sensors, all of these motors and wires and you know, the antennas and all of this stuff is embedded in these links. You know, he used to link the camera works, the lights work battery pack on this one right now, but you know, bright lights and you can keep adding links so how to actually make it.

And as the guy, who's actually assembling these things, doing robot surgery under a microscope all day. So I don't know what I'm doing next, but I hope it's bigger because working small here, it gets a little old, but it's going to be big as a company, but our stuff is quite small.

Elisa Muñoz: What do you think has been the biggest technical challenge you have ever solved? 

Matt Bilsky: Biggest technical challenge. That's tough because there's a lot of them. I mean, and we keep crossing them off. You know, Steven, our roboticist, I don't know whose research this is out of, but he was like, you know that you're almost out. You can sell them, you've almost squashed all your bugs by how frequently a bug shows up. And you know, everybody's familiar with bugs and software, but you have essentially bugs in hardware to whether it's jamming or binding, or you realize that a mechanism causes something to change and how it moves that you didn't account for. So you have to, you know, wire management, stuff like that, how you get all the wires, how you attach them.

Really one of the big challenges is how you put the thing together, you know, developing the methods to, you know, put all the pieces, this thing. And it's not like thinking about laparoscopic surgery versus open heart, right? Like you can't, it's small, you don't have a side access store, right. So you have to think through how all of this stuff goes together. And I think overall, if I had to say like, what's the biggest category of issues is essentially, especially at this point, we've raised some funds, but we're still pretty seed. We're still, you know, at an early stage and getting to this point, a lot of it was bootstrapped and I had to bootstrap it. So how on no budget, can you do this? And, you know, think about like a 7 47 plane, they don't build one.

Right? The first one off the line is the prototype. But the line that that came off of is the full production line, right? Like it's not, and that's kind of where I joke that the intersection of power tools and aerospace were like, oh yeah, we need stuff. But people aren't going to at least affordably make it 10 of something a lot of time. So there's been creativity in how we can either make 10 affordable or, you know, work with stock things and even with processes. So in a lot of ways, yes, making a thousand has its own challenges. But when you're at the scale, you're making a thousand, the techniques and ways you approach it.

Elisa Muñoz: And talking about challenges, have you found any critical one in the development process when it comes to purchasing?

Matt Bilsky: In purchasing, right? You deal with some overseas, you even deal with domestically and like, look at Amazon, oh, glue seems cheap. You know how many times I've gotten expired, dried up blue bottles. Like, you know, like, oh, that seems like a great deal, but it is, it's the funniest side. I mean, “Hey, I love you, Amazon, without you, this wouldn't exist”. We can buy most stuff there. That's our joke. You know, if it's not on there, it's not for us because that's the price point we're looking at. But yeah, there's no easy answers to any of this stuff. And so purchasing this definitely it's a time consuming activity.

And then even more so you run into it at a certain point, it's not the cost of the thing. It's the time to lead. So it's, it's the real cost. Is it not coming out? Right. But of course you don't have cash either. So it's like, I'm out the money and I'm out three months, that's even worse. But like, so it's that song and dance that kind of works around that.

Elisa Muñoz: Last but not least Matt: Any advice that you want to give to any future engineers who are listening to us?

Matt Bilsky: That's a great question. And I mean, there's a lot. So I've, I've given a bunch of guest lectures and at the end of the slides, I usually have my startup tidbits. So I'm thinking, Hey, here's a handful of those. I think the first one since you asked for my advice is, you know, opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one. Like the reality is who am I to tell you? I don't know you. So you gotta take everything with a grain of salt, right? So here's some stuff I think, but you're going to get a different call if somebody is going to give you a different opinion. So like your job as the CEO or, you know, your job as a human is to put a low pass filter on this, no matter what you're doing. Right. And synthesize the cause. If you don't, you're going to, it's like cruise control. 

I think one of the biggest things, a piece of advice, is to read the directions. Why do I own my patents? I read the directions. So many things in life. There's opportunities out there. But if you don't call, you're not going to know it's there. You don't ask. And then even if you do, you don't follow the directions. You ain't going to get it. 

Elisa Muñoz: Thank you so much Matt, this was great. 

Matt Bilsky: It was my pleasure.

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