Sun Microsystems has expanded its iForce partner programme in Greater China to include a ‘Venture Capital Club’ comprised of 10 leading venture capitalists in the region, and 15 incubation centres at which promising start-ups can develop their products on Sun hardware totally free of charge.

Sun has invested $20 million in installing racks of hardware at these incubation centres, which are located in partners’ premises. In Hong Kong, for example, the centres are located at PCCW and Smartone premises, and one of the Mainland centres is hosted by China Netcom.

All of the incubation centres in Taiwan have been completed and some start-up companies have begun development there. The other centres in Hong Kong and China will be completed in the next 30-60 days and Sun is beginning to prioritize the companies it will give access to.

The venture capitalists will act as filters, recommending companies to Sun for participation in the programme, which it hopes will soon have between 40-120 companies on board. Those companies that are selected will be given up to six months free use of the Sun technology to develop their products.

Simon Leung, Sun Microsystems’ director of partner sales Greater China, says that some companies he has talked to are skeptical about the deal, expecting some kind of fine print that gives away equity, or ties the start-up into a purchasing agreement. But that is not the case, he adds. “We’re over-confident that a company that is given six months free development time and access to our iForce partner network will end up becoming a long-term customer for Sun.”

And obviously if a company has built their product to run on Sun hardware and operating systems, then it is going to be easier for them to purchase from Sun when their six months at the incubator centre is up.

Companies that are up to standard at the end of their allocated development time will be invited to join the existing iForce partner network that comprises 405 companies in Greater China alone. Sun has spent $300 million worldwide on its iForce partner network and provides technology support, conferences and events for networking and relationship broking between companies.

In the current technology investment environment, with many VCs sitting on large sums of uninvested cash, it may seem optimistic to expect to find 100 companies worthy of support, but Leung doesn’t expect that to be a problem. Besides the venture capitalists referring companies to the program, iForce partner companies, such as Chinese PC companies Legend and Founder, and partners hosting the incubation centres, such as PCCW, will also be referring companies to the program.

The 10 members of the venture capital club so far include DragonTech Ventures Management and Techpacific Venture Capital of Hong Kong, Harbinger Venture Management of Taiwan and the Mainland-based Tsing Hua Ziguang.