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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, April 20, 2018

Attorney to inventors reinvented himself first


Christopher escapes troubled youth to run growing IP practice



If an artist were to paint a picture of Kevin Christopher’s childhood, it wouldn’t be pretty. Shadows and dark colors would swirl around a young boy whose father wasn’t there, whose feet could find no purchase on the constantly shifting sands of his living situation and who even found himself at odds with the law from time to time as he grew older.

If the same artist were to paint a picture of the 39-year-old Christopher’s life today, the differences between the two portraits would be as stark as the contrast between night and day. Grace and light would surround the man who has become a husband, an ever-present father and an attorney intent on doing good.

Those who looked upon the paintings once they were hung might look at the empty space between them and wonder how Christopher became who he is, given his difficult beginnings.

But when Christopher would look between the portraits, he wouldn’t see a void; he’d see a bridge made of the men who stepped into the gap and guided him toward a better life than he might have known.

Widgets, Inc.

As an adult, Christopher has traded the shifting sands of his youth for a solid piece of bedrock he calls Ridgeline Venture Law, a firm focused on intellectual property, emerging technologies and entrepreneurs. In a nutshell, if someone builds a widget, Christopher helps them to protect it and build a business around it.

“It’s a fantastic space to play in because you’re dealing with people who are creating things,” Christopher says. “Instead of representing people who are fighting about things, your clients are wide-eyed, optimistic and innovative, and it’s fun to be around them.”

Christopher might as well be describing himself. Dressed in a blue checkered shirt, a matching blazer and slightly worn jeans, he strikes the carefully hewn balance between casual and formal that’s popular among young entrepreneurs. Christopher’s closely cropped blonde hair, sandpaper scruff and transparent eyeglasses complete the picture: he means business but he’s cool.

Christopher’s clients mean business, as well. His growing portfolio includes a number of biotech companies, including North Carolina-based Resolute Therapeutics, Knoxville-based BioPet Laboratories and Nashville-based Relay Life Science. From developing the next generation of antibacterial drugs to inventing cutting-edge animal DNA analysis, many of Christopher’s clients exist on the forefront of research and development.

Christopher has done extensive work in this space since becoming an attorney in 2010. He steered large-scale partnerships in renewable energy and synthetic biology at the University of California Berkeley, led bioinformatics, bioscience and biotech licensing activities at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and has been a key advisor to several startups in the energy and life science sectors.

But Christopher doesn’t confine his services to sophisticated companies that have spent millions of dollars developing advanced technology. For every energy or biotech business with intellectual property or regulatory issues to work though, Christopher helps an individual who’s developed a product or process and needs a guide through the legal labyrinth that lies ahead.

“I work with people who have a job and a family and come up with something on the side they think has legs,” Christopher explains. “It’s their baby and they need someone to take care of it.”

One of the infants Christopher is nurturing is a new football helmet designed to reduce injuries, including the traumatic ones that can impact a player for life. Conceived and designed by two engineers in Cookeville, Christopher says he believes the helmet has the potential to shake up its sport.

“They were talking about the number of players being injured and decided they could build a better helmet,” Christopher points out. “So they went into their workshop, came up with a different design and took it to one of the foremost sports equipment testing centers in the country. It blew away the competition.”

Christopher has since drafted a series of patents on the design, which he’s currently prosecuting. Meanwhile, his clients have started to talk with various manufacturers.

The cherry on the cake is the helmet’s “beautiful end purpose,” Christopher adds. “It will allow people to play a game they love and lower the possibility of injury. Being a part of that is exciting.”

Some days are less than thrilling, though, including the ones when Christopher feels it’s necessary to tell someone he doesn’t believe their baby has legs.

“That’s tough but this is a complicated area of the law,” he acknowledges. “There’s a lot of confusion regarding what a copyright applies to, what a trademark applies to and what a patent applies to and what it takes to acquire them.”

Christopher often fields queries from hopeful tinkerers who know only that they have “come up with something.” Sometimes, he feels compelled to steer them away from investing more time and money in the product or process.

“Maybe there’s a legal standard that would prevent their design from being developed, or maybe they’ve already put it out there to the point that I can’t protect it,” Christopher says. “Sometimes, that breaks their hearts and that’s the end of it, and sometimes, they consider what I’ve said and decide to improve on their work.”

It’s a short walk from delivering bad news to would-be inventors to the next challenge Christopher regularly faces: keeping up with changes to intellectual property law. Like any area of the law, IP law is dynamic, with decisions on new cases often upending decades of established precedent.

Case in point: two cases in 2017 that toppled the immorality standards of trademark law.

In one case, an Asian-American dance rock band – The Slants – tried to trademark their name. “They wanted to take ownership of a racial stereotype and have fun with it,” Christopher says. “But they were denied their trademark.”

The group appealed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided the federal government should not be deciding what is and is not disparaging. “They sliced a standard that had been around for decades that had prevented countless people from obtaining a trademark,” Christopher adds.

So, when someone tried to trademark the word “fuct” and was told no because trademarks could not be scandalous, immoral or vulgar, a federal circuit court reversed that decision, citing the Supreme Court decision involving The Slants.

“Now you can trademark anything that’s graphic, or that people might think is obscene or racially charged,” Christopher continues.

One of Christopher’s clients might actually benefit from these cases. The company has developed a series of bathroom deodorizers for men under the brand named Turdcules. “Take back your throne,” the website declares in bold blue letters. “With Turdcules Toilet Elixirs, you’ll have the power to pulverize man-sized odors with scents that’ll put hair on your chest!”

It’s juvenile, but the product has a market. And Christopher has been tasked with filing the trademark applications on the brand name and some of the product variations, such as “Tennessee Hangover,” a bourbon-scented spray, and “Pooseidon,” which the company’s website claims will allow men to “reign over the porcelain ocean with the ferocity of an Olympian.”

Again, it might be crass, but it’s all in a day’s work for Christopher, who maintains a laser-like focus on intellectual property and two related issues to keep things simple. “If we tried to get into family or employment law, it would limit our ability to stay on top of IP law,” he says.

It’s likely that Christopher has always possessed the intelligence that enables him to do solid work in the law. But if a few key characters in his life had not stepped in and reoriented his bearing, he could have ended up far from where he is today.

A difficult childhood

When Christopher looks back on his childhood, there are no golden-hued memories to gaze upon or moments iced with sweet nostalgia to savor. Instead, he sees a time of insecurity, ambiguity and rebellion.

Christopher’s mother raised him without the help of his father, who was an ephemeral presence at best. Christopher’s only early memory of his father involves the man hurling a chair at his mother. Since Christopher and his mother left that situation, he’s seen his father only a few times, the last being when he was 16.

Christopher spent his youth moving from place to place, spending much time on his own as his mother worked multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads. By the time Christopher entered seventh grade, he’d attended eight schools and had lived mostly in the parts of Nashville that might be well-regarded today but three decades ago were considered tougher parts of town, including Inglewood, Madison and East Nashville.

Christopher’s mother eventually remarried and moved them to Brentwood, which was a 180 turn from their previous life. Unfortunately, Christopher had already picked up some bad habits he carried into the better environment. He was no stranger to trouble in high school, was even arrested a few times and graduated in the bottom quarter of his class.

An idle malaise followed high school until he was 20 years old and doing nothing. It was then, he says, that grace stepped in and took over.

“An uncle that had turned his life around invited me to church. Over time, I cleaned up and was able to attend Lipscomb University,” Christopher says. “At Lipscomb, a few of my professors went above and beyond what was required of them to mentor me outside the classroom.

“I also benefitted from peers who introduced me to rock climbing, running, kayaking and other outdoor pursuits that promote a healthy frame of mind.”

After graduating from Lipscomb in 2005, Christopher spent a year in China teaching college sophomores English, British culture and creative thinking. During this time, his vision of attending law school materialized.

“Growing up in the inner city, no one took me anywhere. So, while I was at Lipscomb, I developed an appreciation for the fun things our natural resources allow us to do,” he explains. “But there was none of that while I was in China. I lived in a city of ten million people, and it was dirty and polluted, and there was no grass.

“That opened my eyes to how much I’d taken for granted. So, I decided to go to law school and then practice environmental law.”

Ridgeline Venture Law

It was a good plan but then there was a hitch: When the economy tanked in 2007, many of the nonprofits that would have hired Christopher went broke and were unable to employ attorneys. So Christopher shifted gears, and when he graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2010, he went to work for a renewable energy startup in California.

He also married a Tennessee girl, Lauren, and started a family. When Lauren became pregnant with their third child in 2016, they decided to return to Tennessee to be closer to her family, take a breather from the rat race and give their kids space to play.

Christopher and his family settled in Cookeville, where Lauren’s family has a farm and 100 acres to roam. Christopher, who was working as in-house counsel for Resolute Therapeutics in California, continued in the same position remotely. However, when the company reached a point in its growth cycle that would have required him to move back to California, he left the company and launched his own firm.

Christopher began practicing in Cookeville. He describes the Upper Cumberland area as an underserved region in his areas of practice. “There wasn’t a single IP attorney in Upper Cumberland,” he recalls. “I literally offer a service no one else does, which I’m proud of because there are a lot of innovators there.”

Like engineers who build better football helmets.

Christopher also opened an office in Chattanooga to serve the growing number of technology companies and other startups making their home in the city and joined the Chattanooga Bar Association.

An important part of Christopher’s vision for his firm involved giving back to his community, so he became certified as a B Corp, a new type of company that works to solve social and environmental problems. To maintain certification as a B Corp, Ridgeline Venture Law donates ten percent of its revenues to environmental nonprofits such as The Access Fund and Chattanooga-based green|spaces. At this time, Ridgeline Venture is the only law firm in Tennessee certified as a B Corp.

Christopher also does pro bono work for Legal Assistance Volunteers for Patent Applications, a Tennessee Bar Association program through which patent attorneys volunteer to prepare and prosecute patents for people below certain income levels.

Christopher initially named his firm after himself but as other attorneys with a similar mindset and experience with startups began expressing an interest in joining him, he changed the name to reflect the firm’s broader mission.

“Part of our name is a nod to the Appalachian region that stretches from Knoxville, past Chattanooga and down into Georgia,” he says. “The word ‘Venture’ is a play on the word ‘adventure,’ but it also captures more of what we do.”

Although Ridgeline Venture is currently a one-man operation, that will soon change with the addition of two attorneys. Michael Sommers, a University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Law graduate, will begin work in June and Chelsea Masters, a University of North Carolina School of Law graduate, will be joining the firm as an associate in August.

Grace for today

While Christopher could have been excused for feeling bitter about his childhood, there appears to be no unforgiveness in him.

When speaking about his mother, Christopher marvels at how much she was able to accomplish on her own. He also recognizes how she never knew her father, either, and was adopted and brought to the U.S. from Germany to escape an abusive situation.

Christopher even excuses his father to a degree. The man also grew up fatherless, and without a strong hand to guide him, dropped out of school early and forged his birth certificate to fight in the Vietnam War. “He likely suffered from a combination of PTSD and addiction,” Christopher says.

Instead of feeling resentful or angry, Christopher has made his peace with his past and uses what he’s learned to help others. Currently, he’s a volunteer mentor at The Company Lab, helping their yearly startups work through their nine-week accelerator programs.

Someday, when someone looks at the paintings that reflect two distinct periods in their life – periods that are as different as night and day – they might see Christopher in the space between them, helping them to cross the void.

Above all, Christopher has broken a multigenerational thread of fatherlessness in his family to become a proud and active dad to three young children. Although he spends a couple days each week tending to his practice in Chattanooga, he looks forward to returning home to his family.

“People have different things they live for as byproducts of their histories. Fatherhood is huge for me,” he says. “After many generations of absentee fathers, I hope to provide my kids a foundation from which they’re more emboldened than I was to live out their dreams. As long as the robots don’t eat us first.”