Mention the word “invention” and what jumps to mind is usually a mechanical gadget – a new mousetrap – or a fancy new “app.”

We don’t generally associate the word - or the concept of innovation - with food. But the food and beverage industry is rife with innovative thinking. The vast range of foods and ingredients provides potential to make new products, develop novel combinations for new dishes, prepare valuable extracts, or do something innovative with an existing production process. As food perishes, anything that can make it last longer and remain fresh and nutritious (and tasty) will be of major interest to the industry and consumers.

New Zealand is as active as any nation in this area. The success of our Manuka honey products, for example, is well known, and in kitchens and laboratories around the country plenty of kiwi entrepreneurs are developing new foods or new technologies to preserve, flavour or improve existing foods.

Find a new food product that people like and will pay well for, or a way to make a product last longer, and your future is assured. Or so you’d think – after all, the whole world has to eat.

But there’s a (food) trap. Developing a delicious new recipe for a quince and kumara jam is only the first step. There is no way to guarantee you’re the only one with the idea or who has managed to turn it into a product or a process that works.

And if you don’t make the effort to check, you may learn you have a competitor with the same product or technology only when you take it to market. At that point, if the competitor has done their homework and protected their own intellectual property (IP), you may find that you’re barred from selling a product or using a process you’ve invested significant resource into developing. Indeed, your whole endeavour may be threatened.

It’s called Freedom to Operate (FTO). You get it when you have established that your products and processes aren’t captured by your competitors’ IP rights. And just because there’s no identical product in the market doesn’t mean there’s no patent!

The process of arriving at a new food or food technology isn’t generally an overnight “eureka!” event. It usually involves a lot of trial and error, recipe evolution, process variation and all the commercial considerations around production to scale, delivery and marketing. It is wise to check out the market and the patent landscape for something similar before you throw a lot of effort and resource into the development of your innovative new product. You need to know if you risk infringing any third-party rights so you can minimise the risk to your commercial venture.

We’re not necessarily talking a massive undertaking or significant cost to ensure the field is clear either; a simple FTO search may be all that’s required to identify whether any major obstacles are in the way. And while assessing your FTO is a primarily a tool for mitigating business risk, it can also inform your own product and process development.

IP is overlooked or undervalued in the food world. Your recipes and standard operating procedures are effectively trade secrets. There is IP bound up in who your suppliers are, what they supply you with, and who you sell to. You need to identify and protect your IP - and not just the obvious; there’s a lot of existing IP throughout your business that would be very useful to the competitor trying to steal the food from under your nose.

Food is big business. Blessed with climate and soils that support all manner of food production and a strong research community, New Zealand has all the attributes to lead the world in food and beverages R&D. The risk – and the country’s history bears this out – is that we need to be vigilant around keeping our recipes close to our chest, proactive about bolting down and commercialising our IP, and diligent about FTO in the markets we are pursuing.