PARC opens incubator, may change plodding reputation?

startupparc.jpgThe Palo Alto Research Center, the famed Silicon Valley research institution that popularized things like the computer mouse to the laser printer, has decided to open its doors to more aggressively nurture entrepreneurs.

PARC, founded by Xerox in 1970 for internal research, is now an independently operating subsidiary of the company. Its innovations are numerous, from the early personal computer Alto to ubiquitous computing.

However, one criticism of PARC is that it was never able to bring products conceived in its lab quickly enough to market. Other, venture backed entrepreneurs usually ate PARC’s lunch.

Over the decades, PARC has incubated about a dozen companies. A new program called Startup@PARC, however, could incubate the same number of companies in just a year or two. PARC will work work with several companies at once, and has issued a formal application process here to kick it off.

Here’s how it works: First, a business contract is signed. This consists of an agreement for cash, equity or royalties (PARC has no guidance for the amount it wants to invest; it depends on the technology and its promise). In return, startups will have full access to over a hundred researchers on an as-needed basis, although they will not be required to move into the center. The difference between PARC and other incubators (think Plug&Play, YCombinator, etc) will be the center’s scientific and engineering expertise, Nitin Parekh, the director of business development, told me during an interview. PARC can also assist in the design process, up to the first stages of manufacturing, and is willing to share its own intellectual property.

More recently, PARC’s research projects in search and solar technology have boosted companies that have licensed it, Powerset and SolFocus, respectively.

SolFocus, which develops mirrors to focus sunlight onto solar cells, grew from two to over 50 employees within the walls of PARC, before moving out. Other successes have included Inxight and ContentGuard, both recently acquired.

PARC’s partnership with SolFocus came about through a “serendipitous” connection, a conversation that occurred at the right time and place. The new program differs in that there is a formal application process, and PARC is interested in working with several companies at once, making it more akin to a traditional incubator.

Going forward, PARC doesn’t have any specific type of startups in mind for the program, Parekh told me. “We’ve got such a wide area of competencies,” he said. When pressed, he did say the center is particularly eager and qualified to support cleantech, large-area electronic displays, constraint based reasoning systems, and human information interaction — colloquially known as Web 2.0.