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O'Brien was born in Ohio and graduated from Westerville High School. He fought in the Vietnam War as a Marine. Upon returning home, he earned a biology degree from Ohio State University, a PhD in pharmacology from the University of Virginia, and conducted post-doctoral work at Harvard University.
Following the long legal dispute with the Mousetrap, he studied law and passed the Virginia Bar Exam in 1998. He practiced law in Amherst County before becoming a patent attorney for a firm in British Columbia.