Kickstarting a cure for hiccups

Ali Seifi, MD (center), with MS graduate students (from left to right) Alexis Lorio (Class of 2024), Hari Krishnakumar (Class of 2024), Ellen Burton (Class of 2024) and Shwetha Menon (Class of 2023) standing in Seifi's lab.
Ali Seifi, MD (center), with MS graduate students (from left to right) Alexis Lorio (Class of 2024), Hari Krishnakumar (Class of 2024), Ellen Burton (Class of 2024) and Shwetha Menon (Class of 2023).

When an idea just won’t go away

By Michael Seringer

For years, Ali Seifi could not get the idea of curing hiccups out of his mind. He spent hours daydreaming of air pressure, flow, enervation and throat tissue flaps. Finally, after talking with a patient who had been up all night with hiccups after surgery, Seifi decided to turn his idea into a working prototype. After much research and many iterations of the hiccup device, Seifi had a working version. He persuaded every friend and family member to help test the prototype device. He enthusiastically waited for them to get the hiccups.

“Very simply, I started buying some plastic tubes and started building it,” Seifi said. “I started testing myself and my family whenever we had hiccups. Gradually, I found what kind of device I would need. The right pressure and right dimensions were important.”


Associate Professor, Department of Neurosurgery; Director and Fellowship Director of Neurocritical Care
Company: HiccAway (private)
Compound: Device — patented, licensed from UT Health San Antonio
Treatment for: Hiccups
Stage: On the market (H-E-B, CVS, Amazon)
Timing: Approximately 10 years
Funding: $200,000 — corporate partner, self-funded, crowdsourced, friends and family; $250,000 — Mark Cuban, Shark Tank; cash flow — 50% of profit goes back to advertising
Do the research, develop a plan and execute the plan.

A market-driven approach to financing

Seifi designed a straw-like device that essentially resets the diaphragm and sends hiccups packing. Once the prototype was complete, Seifi made a game-changing decision: He hired a marketing expert who launched HiccAway on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. While Seifi’s team raised $60,000 from social media, they gained priceless market intelligence, built a test population of 600 people for a “clinical trial” and attracted the producers of ABC’s business reality TV show Shark Tank.

“That was a really consequential decision for us,” Seifi said. The marketing consultant suggested HiccAway use Kickstarter to estimate market size, determine product pricing and create product awareness. “The problem with hiccups was that they exist but the community didn’t know that there is a device that can stop hiccups. This is because there has been no treatment for years and years. People weren’t looking for it.”

The $60,000 raised during the campaign was a secondary goal to market the product and build awareness around HiccAway that would yield critical business intelligence. The novelty of the product, combined with the universal experience of annoying hiccups, led to great success with the campaign.

HiccAway connected with a large population of people willing to test the product, providing invaluable feedback. In fact, 600 people from the Kickstarter population tested the device and completed a series of questionnaires, creating a de facto clinical trial. The results of the Kickstarter study were published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) and demonstrated that the HiccAway device was 92% effective at completely relieving hiccups.

What Seifi didn’t realize was that producers from the hit TV show Shark Tank follow Kickstarter to find startups to invite to appear on their show.

“When I got the first emails from ABC, I thought they were fake and ignored them,” Seifi said. “Then the producer emailed me directly to invite me on the show.”

The Kickstarter study published in JAMA, along with the patent protection and the fact that hiccups are the third most common health search on Google, combined to make an investment in HiccAway much less risky.

Mark Cuban made a $250,000 offer for 20% of the company. More important than the financing, Seifi now had a partner who could generate free exposure for the product given Cuban’s popular public persona and following. HiccAway had successfully leveraged free social media into millions of dollars’ worth of advertising.

The FDA conundrum

Seifi and his team are currently working with the FDA to obtain a “stamp of approval.” Getting the FDA to officially approve the device has been a challenge. The FDA does not regulate non-invasive devices that solve for an involuntary spasm that does not cause permanent damage.

From prototype to patent: The progression of the HiccAway device, from early attempts (blue) to final product (white).

The challenge for HiccAway is that hiccups are not considered a disease, or even a side effect, but a reaction. For example, some cancer patients have resistant hiccups from their primary cancer affecting the diaphragm or from a treatment that affects the phrenic nerve. While a universal annoyance for many, hiccups are a frequent and sometimes severe problem for few.

“After discussions with the FDA, they have determined the product is low risk and we are working with a team of specialists there to test the device and review the clinical data in order to get the FDA stamp of approval,” Seifi said. This approval will allow HiccAway to use the FDA mark on packaging and is an important part of building trust in the product among consumers.

Seifi’s advice to anyone with a great idea is to not forget it but pursue it. Do the research, develop a plan and execute the plan. It took Seifi over a decade for his device to reach the market after he first began thinking about the problem, and he had to work through many failures before success. Failure is really just an opportunity to learn, Seifi said.

“Take your idea seriously, write it down and talk to people you trust about it,” he said. “Brilliant ideas can come from anyone; you don’t have to be a doctor or scientist.”

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In the 2022 issue of Future

Future is the official magazine of the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Read and share inspiring stories highlighting our medical alumni, faculty and students who are revolutionizing education, research, patient care and critical services in the communities they serve.

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