“A year from now I could be the CEO of a multi-hundred-million-dollar company or I’ll be living in an AirBnB. There’s really not a whole lot in between.”
NASHVILLE SINCE 2017
“Very few people ever live on an edge,” David Hysong recalls a minister telling him the summer before he founded Shepherd Therapeutics. “No one ever lives trying to do something so impossible that they have to rely on someone else.”
Imagine intentionally, repeatedly putting yourself in that position. For David, it’s a day in the life. He’s been an undercover investigator in Cambodia, working in sexual slavery and human trafficking. “He’d had two investigators killed in Cambodia, so he had an open position,” David recalls of the initial opportunity. While riding a motorcycle in Cambodia, he was hit by a bus going 60 miles per hour – “apparently that happens all the time” – nearly died, and was told he’d never get use of his left side back (he has). While rehabbing, he applied to Harvard on a dare; he took the GRE with one hand. When he graduated, he was picked as one of 40 men to go to Navy SEAL selection, and was 7th in his class.
“Then I found out that I had done it all with head and neck cancer,” he says.
David’s form of cancer is Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma. There are 25 common types of cancer; David’s is one of 322 rare types. For David and millions like him, whose cancers don’t fall under a more common umbrella type of cancer, chances of research and the eventual development of medicine are very slim. David’s prognosis was five years to live.
“Basically, this is an economic issue,” he says. “But the issue is that it means literally millions of people are left to die.”
The idea to start Shepherd came to David while he was in the shower. “I had just graduated, I had no idea what I was going to do, the military thing was gone,” he recalls. For a time, he was even homeless. “I was working 80 hours a week of retail with two master’s degrees just to pay the bills… I was up to about 8 to 10 glasses of bourbon a day; I’d usually have one for breakfast.” He continues, “It just finally crushed me.” He quit his classes and the jobs. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna pay for things, but I’m gonna kill myself if I don’t chill out,’’’ he recalls. “Two weeks later I was in the shower and had this idea.”
Shepherd does things a bit differently. They focus only on rare cancers, starting with the most rare being given the least attention, with the highest mortality rates. They aim to set up five new foundations that are disease specific; a foundation dedicated specifically to Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma is the reason that David may be able to live longer than five years. Shepherd aims to fund the clinical trials for diseases where the drug is cheap and the disease is small, so the margin for profit isn’t big-pharma-worthy but the effort for which could save lives. And when insurance companies won’t pay for things like a second opinion, Shepherd aims to help pay for that. In every way, they’re rewriting the rule book to give people a better shot at survival. “I want to build a company that will be here for 100 years after I die, and that is never publicly traded and never, ever sold,” he says.
“Long term vision, big goal, basically it would revolutionize how we treat cancer,” he says. It’s already turning heads. David was featured last year in Forbes’ 30 under 30, and he’s received millions of dollars in funding. He’s even been blessed by the Pope.
“The only people that change the world are the ones that do things outside the box,” he says. “You’ve gotta push the edge of the envelope to really catalyze change.”
With the minister’s words echoing in his head, he’s continuing to live on that edge. “I want that type of purpose in my life,” he says.
“There’s a lost Dumas novel called The Last Cavalier,” he says in explanation. “There’s a line in there where Napoleon’s talking about this rebel commander that seems like he’s fearless and they’re looking at what’s behind that, what allows people to live on the edge. Basically, I think it’s just coming to terms with your own death … with hardship and suffering. I’ve been through a lot now,” he continues. “I’m not really afraid of much.”
Learn more on the Shepherd Therapeutics website.