After two chance experiences collaborating with innovative new companies, Xerox's fabled PARC lab is to launch a formal program in the hope of participating in further similar projects.

About 18 months ago, a couple of researchers from the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) met two entrepreneurs at a conference. After they had lunch together, the solar energy aspirations of the two entrepreneurs captured the imaginations of the PARC researchers enough that they pursued a new type of relationship with the entrepreneurs, said Mark Bernstein, president and centre director of PARC.

After three months of hammering out the legal details, the two entrepreneurs moved into space at PARC, where they collaborated with PARC researchers on technology. The team gradually grew to 50 people and now has moved into its own offices as an independent company, SolFocus.

SolFocus paid PARC for the space in the lab as well as resources such as internet access. As they worked together, the two parties also distinguished between PARC intellectual property (IP), SolFocus IP and joint IP for revenue-sharing purposes. Throughout the collaboration, there wasn't any "tussling for advantage," Bernstein said. "We both want SolFocus to be successful and we share in their success," he said.

PARC had a similar but structurally different experience with another startup, Powerset, a company working on a natural-language search engine. That came about when an entrepreneur came to PARC, which already had about 100 patents related to natural-language research, and promoted the idea of starting a business around a natural-language search offering that could scale and perform well, Bernstein said.

One of PARC's lead researchers ended up leaving the facility to become the chief technology officer of Powerset. Researchers from Powerset and PARC currently have offices in each other's facilities, and they continue to collaborate on the technology.

"These were two unique but similar experiences, in that they were fundamentally about finding a good match between PARC's competencies and a value proposition for a startup," Bernstein said.

Now PARC has decided to become more "purposeful" about seeking out other similar collaborations, he said. The new program is called [email protected], and interested partners can submit a collaboration proposal online. "What we're really looking for are unique ideas that have the potential to be really significant disruptive innovations in the world," he said. PARC will also be looking for people who "think big but in a grounded fashion and avoid those that represent a me-too offering," he said.

PARC has already received a few inquiries from entrepreneurs who saw publicity from the Powerset arrangement. PARC will probably concentrate on one or two new projects over the next couple of years, he said.

PARC was started in 1970 as part of Xerox Research and is credited with innovating the mouse, the graphical user interface and the laser printer, all of which were first commercialised on desktop computers from Apple.