Idealism in Action

December 7, 2017
David Hysong
David Hysong, MDiv '15

David Hysong, MDiv ’15, finished his master’s degree in intellectual history in 2011 and found himself with a year’s lag time before he planned to enter the U.S. Navy. He was young, good looking, and smart. Most people in his position would probably have kicked back, gotten a job to pay the bills, and had some fun. But David Hysong is not “most people.”

At 23, Hysong joined the Christian human rights organization International Justice Mission (IJM) as an investigator. He traveled to Cambodia and worked with IJM’s French-sponsored partners Action Pour Les Enfants to compile evidence on the perpetrators of sexual slavery.

“There are 30 million people enslaved in the world today,” Hysong asserts. “IJM had recently had two investigators killed in the line of duty. They needed young men who were willing to do that sort of work. Honestly, I just packed up my bags and left. I figured the rest out when I got there.”

Hysong’s time in Cambodia is just one episode in a remarkable life and career journey that includes admission to West Point, Navy SEAL training, thousands of miles on a cross-country motorcycle trip, near-death experiences, and now a biotech start up that’s earned him mention in Forbes Magazine’s list of the best young entrepreneurs. All before his 30th birthday.

“My father was a highly decorated military pilot,” Hysong explains. “He instilled an idealism in me, but an idealism manifest in action. It’s very much a part of my makeup. I want to be on the front lines. I want to have a direct impact.”

‘I wasn’t really proud of what I’d done’

In contrast to his later accomplishments, Hysong’s adult life started almost inauspiciously. He attended Transylvania University, one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges and graduated in 2009 with a triple major in economics, philosophy, and French literature, but says he still “wasn’t really proud of what I’d done.” Hysong applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point for a second bachelor’s degree and won admission but decided instead to pursue a master’s degree in intellectual history at St. John’s College in Annapolis. It was there that he connected with students at the neighboring U.S. Naval Academy and eventually applied for the Navy’s elite Special Operations Group, the “Sea, Air, and Land” Teams (SEALs).

“There was a prestige in getting into West Point, but as far as my development as an individual, I felt like St. John’s was a better place to cultivate that,” he says. “So I ended up right next door to the Naval Academy and found a synergy between one of the best academic educations that I could have had at St. Johns and then also physically going after special operations.”

As a civilian, Hysong was required to do a long mentorship program to prepare him for the SEALs. The time between his acceptance and actual selection enabled him to join IJM and go to Cambodia. His antislavery work—and very nearly his life—came to an end, however, when a tour bus barreled into him on a motorcycle trip through the jungle. During his long and painful recuperation, Hysong’s thoughts turned to religion. He wanted to explore his own conservative Christian roots, which included a grandfather who was a Nazarene minister. Having had a taste of international human rights work, he was also interested in the nexus of religion, ethics, and politics. On a dare from a friend, he applied to HDS in 2012 for enrollment that fall.

“I was in between surgeries,” he says. “I had use of one hand. I typed my application with only my pointer finger, took the GRE, and ultimately got in.”

In Cambodia Hysong witnessed deep suffering that caused him to question many of the religious assumptions he’d grown up with. HDS enabled him to study religious history— particularly Christianity and Judaism—and look critically at his own theology. He was also challenged by classmates with backgrounds, experiences, and points of view that differed sharply from his own.

“HDS was a much more liberal, pluralistic community than the one I came from,” he says. “I figured that if I came out of there with a place to stand that included faith, then I would feel pretty strongly about the validity of that.”

HDS also made possible what Hysong calls some “crazy” field education experiences. During the summer after his first year in school, Hysong worked with the SEALs on a project that integrated a strong ethical identity into the group’s warrior culture. During the academic year, he joined the team of seminarians at Harvard’s Memorial Church under Pusey Minister Jonathan Walton. The following summer, he got back on a motorcycle for the first time since the accident in Cambodia for a project that was half travelogue, half spiritual pilgrimage.

“I did a 12,000-mile motorcycle trip alone while I worked on writing a book on St. Augustine, Thomas Edward Lawrence, and confession framed by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur under the supervision of my mentor and advisor, Professor Charles Stang,” he says. “I circumnavigated the United States, worked on a buffalo ranch, and basically just wrote a bunch.”

‘You can quit or you can keep going’

In the month between traveling and ranching, Hysong participated in the grueling selection process for Navy SEALs, a month of suffering designed to push candidates to their physical and psychological limits. He completed the process successfully, despite collapsing at one point from pulmonary edema, the result of long swims in polluted water.

“After I passed out, I went to medical,” he says. “They gave me the choice: ‘Well, you can quit or you can keep going.’ I kept going.”

After some buffalo wrangling in Montana, Hysong returned to HDS for his final year and underwent testing as a follow-up to his collapse. It was then that doctors discovered he had adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of head and neck cancer. His military career was over before it started. His future was uncertain. Just as he had during SEAL selection, however, Hysong pushed on.

“I got treated at Massachusetts General Hospital but kept going,” he says. “I stayed in all my classes and was working 40 hours a week and coaching undergraduate club soccer at Harvard. I finished up treatment and graduated on time.”

After graduation in May 2015, Hysong considered medical school. He took preparatory courses while working 80-hour weeks at two jobs to pay off medical and student debts. The schedule, in the wake of cancer treatment and graduate school, began to burn him out. At Stang’s urging, Hysong took a break for a few weeks. The clouds cleared and he was inspired to undertake what he calls “an impossible task”: a biotech start up that searched for cures to rare cancers like his. He prayed about it, made the decision to move forward, and things began to fall into place.

“It turned out that I had coached a soccer club that included the son of Gene Williams, the man who grew [biotech firm] Genzyme’s therapeutics portfolio from $3 billion to $30 billion,” he says. “He realized that progress in rare cancers would come from patients that can motivate scientists and others around the disease. We had coffee and Gene said, ‘David, do this and do this right now, and I’ll help you.’”

‘There’s a lot of opportunity to save lives’

Two weeks later, in New York City, Hysong was at a Milken Institute conference on rare cancers where he raised $1.5M to found Shepherd Therapeutics. His Genzyme and Harvard connections enabled him to assemble a world-class team of scientists. The firm’s goal is to find cures for the more than 250 rare cancers that make up 42 percent of cancer diagnoses in the United States. Hysong says that Shepherd is well on its way.

“We’ve raised close to $6.5M and we’re only just now finalizing our product portfolio,” he says. “The cool thing is, a lot of the times, therapeutics are approved when they represent a 30 percent survival rate or 40 percent survival rate. For the diseases we’re looking at, our preliminary data show about an 80 percent survival rate. We really think we’re going to be very successful and save a lot of lives.”

His cancer in remission, Hysong looks to the future. Given his achievements so far, it should come as no surprise that he’s set his sights high. While Shepherd is currently developing the type of therapeutics that would make it a successful company—both financially and in terms of lives saved—Hysong is also in the process of setting up two nonprofits, one a private foundation and one a public charity. He wants these to become the world’s first nonprofit pharmaceutical companies—organizations focused on the therapies that will save lives rather than generate big profits.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to save lives with medicines that just won’t make money and so aren’t an economically viable path for business,” he says. “The American public donates billions of dollars every year to cancer research. We want to bring some of that money to bear on actually developing life-saving therapies for rare cancers, not just research. So my hope is that in five years we have a billion-dollar endowment, we’re raising a ton of money from the U.S. public, and we’ve saved a million lives.”

—Paul Massari