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Stell helps engineers focus on building, not paperwork

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Stell website image
Image Credits: Stell (opens in a new window)

“Hard tech” is the latest buzz phrase in venture capital, but all hard tech industries still rely on software infrastructure to ensure machines run properly, parts are shipped on time and that they are built to very exact requirements.

Stell, a two-year-old software startup, is focused on this latter part of the engineering ecosystem. The company has developed a tool for requirements management that allows teams to track, verify and validate requirements on complex projects.

“Requirements management is such a process-heavy, clunky workflow and all the tools right now are really failing at the user interface and being something the majority of team members at companies can use,” Stell co-founder and CEO Malory McLemore explained in a recent interview.

She should know: McLemore is an engineer by training, with past work stints at major enterprises like Airbus and Raytheon, as well as manufacturing startup Hadrian. She founded Stell in 2022 with Anne Wen, a professional with experience in venture capital and getting space startups off the ground.

The pair met at Harvard Business School, and shared the view that complex engineering was overburdened by paperwork and insufficient workflows. They imagined something different: a tool that was truly useful and user-friendly, that cut down on paperwork and that engineers would actually want to use.

McLemore and Wen raised a $3.1 million pre-seed last January to execute on this vision, which includes an entire ecosystem where people can communicate, trace and track requirements up to the customer.

Now, more investors have gotten behind Stell’s vision. Last month, the company closed a $4 million seed round led by Long Journey Ventures and Cyan & Scott Banister, with participation from Third Prime, Wischoff Ventures, Urban Innovation Fund, Forward Deployed VC and Fulcrum Venture Group, as well as a select group of angel investors.

Stell was originally planning to roll out a tool to digitize specifications and technical contracts — something almost like a purchasing or supply chain tool — so that, for example, a company buying parts could build that technical contract on Stell (versus a PDF). While that’s still in the pipeline, McLemore and Wen realized that it wasn’t the best place to start.

So they pivoted — a decision McLemore said was customer-driven — to directly compete in the requirements management category and ship that product first. One of the most popular legacy tools in this category is IBM DOORs, which is extremely powerful — but very complex and extremely costly.

“That worked for the industry a long time ago, but it no longer works in this era of working with diverse teams. People might not have time to go to a two-week training on how to use a tool,” McLemore said.

Often, even if a company purchases licenses of IBM DOORs, engineers on the ground still rely on workarounds like Excel, Word or Jira — tools that work okay for smaller teams or prototypes, but quickly fall apart for more complex projects that need more collaboration.

“[DOORs] ends up being more of an audit log that you just do to check a box because your customer said you must do it, versus an actual collaboration platform. That’s really what we’re up against. I think it is hard to compete, mostly because there’s just an inertia because it’s been so long since there’s been a competitor in the space that has been able to match the workflows that exist in that tool.”

“It can really hobble these big projects and lead to mistakes.”   

Stell founders Malory McLemore and Anne Wen
Stell founders Malory McLemore and Anne Wen. Image Credits: Stell

Like many early-stage software startups, the company is learning as it goes. Stell shipped a first version of its product last June to a customer “and it’s been a journey of intense iteration and experimentation, speaking to potential customers every single week,” McLemore said. “It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come from those initial designs and hypotheses we had.”

The next step for the Los Angeles-based startup is to build out its supply chain-focused functions. Right now, they are actively selling licenses to their requirements management product, which has features like search, linking, permissioning and the ability to display technical contracts as a document and a matrix. The search function is especially important because that’s how Stell aims to incorporate artificial intelligence. It’s also far from the norm: “When I was an aerospace engineer, I had to know what document number I was looking for, I had to know what page to scroll to, I had to have this model in my head of exactly where information was stored in it,” McLemore said.

Stell has three early customers, all in the space industry, and the company was just awarded a $1.24 million direct-to-Phase II SBIR through the Air Force’s AFWERX program — often the very customer that’s flowing down the requirements to the aerospace companies.

Stell wants to modernize the ‘unsexy’ workflows slowing down America’s industrial base

The team now stands at six, and they plan on using some of the new capital to hire a few more engineers and an individual dedicated to compliance and cybersecurity. The new funding will also be used to ship connectivity features, like sharing digital specifications to suppliers and back to customers, and building out the supply chain functions.

In the longer term, Stell could even be used in the business development process, because it will be a rich repository of specifications and technical data on historical programs. That data could be used to inform future proposals in a more data-driven way.

“We have all these friends in the industry that feel like they’re paperwork engineers, instead of actually building these products and working on these missions to build new space stations or what the U.S. will be up against in this next era,” McLemore said. “So we see ourselves as essential to that mission. So even if it’s maybe hard to compete with these large software companies, we still think it’s important.”

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