Reaching for the Right to Live: David Hysong

Julian Upton

Julian Upton is Pharmaceutical Executive's Online and European Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com

David Hysong is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of SHEPHERD, whose mission, it states simply, is to make the drugs other companies won’t make to save lives others aren’t saving.

Hysong, a Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ honoree, previously worked as an undercover investigator against the sexual enslavement of children in Southeast Asia, and was in training in Special Operations in the U.S. Military when he was diagnosed with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC), a rare, untreatable head and neck cancer, in 2015.

On finding that his form of cancer does not respond to chemotherapy and has no approved targeted therapies, Hysong founded SHEPHERD “for the millions of people battling rare cancer.” SHEPHERD Therapeutics aims to discover, develop, and connect lifesaving cures for rare cancer patients with technology. The SHEPHERD Foundation is working to create a healthcare and research system that is designed and governed by policies that work for all patients; to empower a global community with the resources and funding to ensure that all patients have the right to live; and to provide all patients equal access to information and treatment options tailored to their disease and experience.

PharmExec caught up with Hysong recently to chart his remarkable journey so far.

PharmExec:Many people diagnosed with a disease, especially a ‘rare’ one, embark on a mission to know everything there is to know about that disease. Where many people become vociferous patient advocates, setting up a biotech company is a considerable step up. How did you develop a desire for knowledge and action about ACC into a credible start-up company with a meaningful R&D offering?

David Hysong: SHEPHERD never started from a desire to solve ACC or to save my own life. That was never one of its starting principles. As I dug into the reality that faces ACC patients, I met so many other courageous patient advocates who had set up foundations or were driving progress in other ways. The common problem facing all of them was actually getting someone to develop a therapeutic once a promising idea had been identified. “We have no idea how we’re going to convince a company to develop this, there aren’t enough patients.” I decided that was the gap I would fill, one that no one else had stepped into. I would build a for-profit, drug development company which would make the drugs others wouldn’t make to save the lives others wouldn’t save. The question was, How can we do this at scale?

Your background is unique even in an industry that has its fair share of remarkable people. How did your earlier career experiences help in creating and leading SHEPHERD Therapeutics?

Those experiences were everything. SHEPHERD wouldn’t exist if I had any sort of standard background for a biotech CEO. I wanted to create something that hadn’t been built before, not a different version of something that had already been done successfully. I’ve had quite a bit of education in “grit” — and so much of this journey has been about not giving in, not listening to the scores of people who told me I’d never make it. But I’ve also learned the power of taking radical ownership of a problem and then intentionally trying to solve that problem in a way that no one else has tried. If the problem hasn’t been solved by previous efforts, it’s quite obvious that a different discipline, field, or type of person is needed to solve it. I look at an industry that has a 90% failure rate and considers it a success when 30% of patients respond to a therapeutic and see an opportunity. We’re not playing baseball here. As a patient, I’m not that interested in an extra few months. I’d like an extra few decades. I want to LIVE.

What would you say were the biggest obstacles in launching and growing SHEPHERD Therapeutics?

Having no idea what a biotech was, asking for millions of dollars when I had been homeless previously, doubting myself and my instincts and listening to the advice of countless others “who knew better” or “who had done this before.” My greatest mistakes have always been in following the paths laid down by others. I’ve learned to trust my team and myself. SHEPHERD has been built on grit, on creativity, and on the unique inspiration that is being told over and over again, “you can’t do this.” Hire people from diverse fields who are motivated by lives saved, not by how much money they can make, then care for them and trust them. I didn’t build SHEPHERD. We did.

How did you go about gathering the right team around you and what would you say is unique about the culture and philosophy of SHEPHERD?

SHEPHERD has also been built on goodness and by a very unlikely team of “misfits.” People whom almost any other company in the space would not have hired, nor listened to, nor given a seat at the table. While we have a few folks who have had decades of experience in the industry, many of our best ideas have come from people many others might overlook. We have built something truly remarkable by believing in people who may have forgotten how to believe in themselves. And I think one of the most remarkable things is just how much people like Dr. Johanne Kaplan, 24-year Genzyme veteran, have encouraged, taught, and championed those different approaches. There is very little ego at SHEPHERD. We’re all on a journey, together.

What have been the key milestones SHEPHERD has reached since its establishment?

We’ve been so fortunate to have had a number of meaningful moments along the way, from awards and recognition to key collaborations and hires — being named to Forbes 30 Under 30 as a CEO and to Biospace’s Top 20 to Watch as a company, hiring a number of President Biden’s former folks from the Biden Cancer Initiative, our recently announced collaborations with Mayo Clinic, NCATS and OncoHeroes Biosciences, (the other collaborations being finalized currently), and writing a hallmark piece of legislation for 2021 that would mandate coverage of Next Generation Sequencing for every cancer patient in the country. But the biggest milestone of all has been the final creation of our personalized medicine and precision oncology platform, DELVE. That will be our biggest impact on patients around the world.

What are your priorities for SHEPHERD for the immediate future?

We are actively building the partnerships to make DELVE a global tool for physicians at point of care, enabling them to match newly diagnosed or refractory patients with highest potential therapeutics in minutes, in both developed and developing economies and healthcare systems. We will also be driving both internal and partnered drug development, helping other companies and researchers match their most promising therapeutics with as many and the highest responding patients possible.

I want SHEPHERD to have a global reach and to usher in an era of mathematics-driven drug discovery, development, and application — from bench all the way to bedside.

What are your long-term goals for the company?

To leave no patient left to die.