Tim McCready talks to David Macaskill, senior associate at James & Wells about protecting agribusiness innovation.

New Zealand companies have always been inventive problem-solvers in the farming and horticulture sectors. That innovative spirit is driving a new wave of product and technology development which has the potential to create value for the wider economy. This growing interest in agri-business is reflected in the increase in R&D and investment in agricultural and horticultural related technologies.

Herald: Which agribusiness areas are attracting attention in New Zealand and internationally?
David Macaskill: In short, all aspects of food production and supply are being disrupted with no part of the supply chain being immune. Businesses are investing in R&D for the competitive advantage it provides while consumers are seeking products that align with their values.

An important focus area is the creation of new solutions for long-standing problems, such as labour and skill shortages, increasing productivity, water use/quality, health and safety, and mitigating environmental harm. While the problems are nothing new, the solutions are. The rise of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in agri-business are now hot-topics and are being implemented in everything from autonomous vehicles and harvesters, herd management tools, and robotic milking sheds.

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New challenges are also being addressed. These include demand for functional foods, alternative protein sources, biological pest controls and biopharmaceuticals.

The 'Internet of Things' is leading to connectivity and data collection being widely adopted on farms and orchards. Significant investment is being made into sensors and connected monitoring systems that collect large amounts of data and can be combined with AI to extract useful insights.

There is growing interest from investors in agritech, from angel investors to larger institutional investors and venture capital funds. Several United States agritech-focussed funds have established offices in New Zealand and are actively targeting local start-ups.

Herald: Why is it important for agri-businesses to protect their innovations?
Macaskill: Intellectual property (IP) protection is sometimes viewed as too complex or costly and is put off until it's too late, but the process doesn't need to be daunting. Companies do need to own their innovations otherwise they run the very real risk of losing valuable assets that are central to their value and competitive edge. In addition, IP can be used to leverage your business to create new sources of revenue, to deter competitors from copying aspects of your business or technology and to distinguish your product or services in the market. Businesses with the most robust protection use a mix of different IP tools.

IP is often an important part of a businesses' strategy. It is a tool that offers the opportunity for licensing deals and is essential when seeking outside investment. Investors see IP rights as an asset required for successful commercialisation and are unlikely to invest if there is no protection in place.

Herald: How are the changes in technology affecting intellectual property strategies?
Macaskill: Changes in technology, business models and other factors continually change the strategies companies adopt, but ownership and control of new technologies will always remain key commercial drivers.

As data collection and connectivity are increasingly incorporated into mechanical devices, innovations often fall into one or more technology areas. Patent protection remains a critical form of protection for these cross-technology innovations, however the unique features of these systems and how they are described in their patent applications requires more careful consideration.

This new technology has increased the need for stronger controls around access to and confidentiality of information/data. We're helping businesses develop better systems to restrict access to their data and more selectively use trade secrets.

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Herald: How can agribusinesses use branding to stand out?
Macaskill: While New Zealand's clean, green, "100% pure" image can open doors for exporters, a growing number of companies are finding that a unique brand identity and story is important to creating a strong market position. We've all seen how well the Zespri brand has served the New Zealand kiwifruit industry and that example is being applied by the next generation of businesses. Companies that develop successful branding, and protect it, can establish an exclusive area in the market over the long term.

Remember to treat your IP as an asset. Managed well, it can be a powerful tool for attracting more customers and investors.

Tips

• Identify as early as possible what IP is owned or generated in your organisation.
• Don't wait until you get to market to think about securing formal IP rights – it will be too late.
• Keep accurate, complete records of IP creation, ownership, and transfer in case you need to prove ownership.
• Theft of trade secrets can happen if you don't have the right contracts in place with staff, contractors or third parties. Manage and control the distribution of your ideas and know-how with appropriate agreements and policies.
• A patent/trademark search in the early stages can save you from wasting valuable resource or potentially avoid infringing the rights of others. It can also illuminate the competitive landscape.
• Choose a trademark that is not descriptive of the products or where they come from and is not too similar to your competitors.
• Be careful to read the fine-print of any contracts you as many contain terms or conditions around IP.
• If you're serious about your IP and its value to your business, invest in expert help – it will more than pay for itself in the long-run.