Legal Elite – Patents/Intellectual property
Patents/Intellectual property: Kenneth D. Sibley • Myers Bigel Sibley and Sajovec PA, Raleigh
Bright and early one morning, as you pull away from the drive-through window and take a big bite out of that steak-and-egg biscuit, think of Ken Sibley. He helped make your breakfast possible.
Sibley wrote the patents on the process used to pasteurize the egg. The fast-food fry cook in the back wasn’t breaking any eggs to cook your meal. The eggs arrive precracked and pasteurized, which extends their shelf life. But pasteurization is tricky. Heat the eggs too much, they scramble; not enough, germs remain. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that food scientists at N.C. State University perfected the process. The patents Sibley wrote for State have been challenged many times, but they’ve held up.
The egg breakthrough is among a long list of Sibley’s patents, mostly for biotechnology and chemical innovations. “To say he’s at the cutting edge is an understatement,” says Mark Crowell, director of the Office of Technology Development at UNC Chapel Hill. Working with faculty at UNC, State, East Carolina and other universities, Sibley has written patents for everything from human gene therapy to drug-screening systems.
“Our faculty relate to him beautifully,” Crowell says. “They consider him almost a scientific colleague. It’s not, ‘Oh God, I have to work with the lawyers.’ Some of them get a kick out of sitting down with him, because he’s very conversant in their science.”
If not for a dinner at a Japanese steakhouse, he might actually have been one of their colleagues. Sibley graduated with a bachelor’s in biology and psychology and went to the University of Rochester to do brain research, aiming for a career in pharmaceutical development or teaching. One night out with his wife, Barbara, he struck up a conversation with a Kodak patent lawyer, whose job sounded intriguing. “I was at a crossroads. My immediate research project wasn’t panning out. I needed to start a new one or make a career change.” He chose the latter and headed to law school at Duke.
He’s still at Duke, taking time out from his private practice to teach a patent-law course and a patent-writing seminar every semester. “Sometimes around here we call him ‘the professor,’” partner Mitch Bigel says.
But Sibley’s combination of academic and pragmatist works, Bigel adds. “He’s really into the legal, theoretical part of intellectual property law, and there are a lot of people like that whose heads are in the clouds.”
The two met at Charlotte-based Bell, Seltzer, Park & Gibson, which Sibley joined in 1985 after getting his law degree. Three years later, he moved to its Raleigh office, and in 1997, Sibley, Bigel and 14 other lawyers left to start a new firm. Myers Bigel Sibley & Sajovec wrote 476 patents last year, more than any other North Carolina-based firm, Bigel says.
When it comes to patent law, Sibley says, you can’t delegate much. “Understanding a client’s technology is a fairly personal service.” He has developed relationships with inventors such as Joseph DeSimone, the wunderkind chemistry and chemical engineering professor at UNC and State, who holds more than 70 patents.
Sibley has been DeSimone’s legal counsel since he began his research 10 years ago. He is practically a collaborator, DeSimone says: “When you are trying to flesh out your ideas and you’ve got an attorney there that is not just note taking but contributing and teaching you patent strategy and thinking through the details, he really becomes one of the team during the process. I find that invaluable.”