Houston companies need cybersecurity professionals — and universities can help. Photo via Getty Images

How universities can help equip Houston with a skilled cybersecurity workforce

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With an increasing number of data breaches, a high job growth rate, and a persistent skills gap, cybersecurity professionals will be some of the most in-demand workers in 2022. It’s more important than ever to have people that are properly trained to protect individuals, corporations, and communities.

Demand for cybersecurity talent in Texas is high. According to Burning Glass Labor Insights, employers in the Houston metro area have posted over 24,000 cybersecurity jobs since the beginning of 2021. But the pipeline of cybersecurity workers is very low, which means many local and national companies don’t have enough people on the front lines defending against these attacks.

Unfortunately, it looks like the cybersecurity skills gap is far from over. An annual industry report from the Information Systems Security Association shows that the global demand for cybersecurity skills still far exceeds the current supply of traditionally qualified individuals, with 38 percent of cybersecurity roles currently unfilled. This shortage has real-life, real-world consequences that can result in misconfigured systems and improper risk assessment and management.

How can companies help close the cybersecurity skills gap within their own organizations? We believe it will become increasingly important to look beyond “traditionally qualified” candidates and view hands-on experience as the same, or even more important than, the certifications or bachelor degree requirements often found in cybersecurity job descriptions.

The top open cybersecurity roles in the Houston area include analysts, managers, engineers, and developers. Employees in these positions are essential to the everyday monitoring, troubleshooting, testing and analyzing that helps companies protect data and stay one step ahead of hackers. When looking to fill these roles, hiring managers should be looking for candidates with both the knowledge and experience to take on these critical positions.

Fortunately, Houston-based companies looking to establish, grow, or upskill their cybersecurity teams don’t have to go far to find top-tier talent and training programs. More local colleges and universities are offering alternative credential programs, like boot camps, that provide students with the deep understanding and hands-on learning they need to excel in the roles that companies need to fill.

2U, Inc. and Rice University have partnered to power a data-driven, market-responsive cybersecurity boot camp that provides students with hands-on training in networking, systems, web technologies, databases, and defensive and offensive cybersecurity. Over 40 percent of the students didn’t have bachelor degrees prior to enrolling in the program. Since launching in 2019, the program has produced more than 140 graduates, some of whom have gone on to work in cybersecurity roles at local companies such as CenterPoint Energy, Fulcrum Technology Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.

Recognizing programs like university boot camps as local workforce generators not only gives companies a larger talent pool to recruit from, but also increases the opportunity for cybersecurity teams to diversify and include professionals with different experiences and backgrounds. We’re living in a security-first world, and the right mix of cybersecurity talent is essential to keeping us protected wherever we are.

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David Vassar is the assistant dean of Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies at Rice University. Bret Fund is vice president overseeing cybersecurity programs at 2U.

The ongoing trend of businesses struggling to onboard new employees is likely going to continue through the new year. Here's what you need to know. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: 4 tips on managing employees amid 'The Great Resignation'

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As 2021 comes to an end, businesses continue to struggle to fill open positions caused by "The Great Resignation," and this trend is likely to continue well into the New Year.

It has been particularly difficult to hire and retain Gen Z employees, the newest generation in the workforce, as we navigate the expectations of these employees, as compared to past generations.

Fortunately, businesses can bounce back from "The Great Resignation" or protect themselves before they experience a similar mass exodus by taking the time to understand employees' preferences and motivations, and make a few small changes accordingly.

Prioritize DEI&B, mental health and provide purpose:

Today's world is much different than the world many CEOs and hiring managers grew up in, and a shift is required to successfully recruit, retain, challenge and excite the newest generation. Gen Z is one of the most diverse populations to enter the workforce, and not only do they seek out companies that value diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace, they want to see that their diverse ideas, backgrounds and creative approaches are recognized and celebrated.

Additionally, Gen Z places a major focus on being purposeful in their actions. This generation, especially after living through COVID-19, has begun prioritizing their mental health and overall well-being in their job positions. It's important for these young professionals to make sure that they have a good work/life balance, and that they work in an environment that is healthy for their mental stability.

New professionals ask two main questions when it comes to accepting a job: "What tasks am I doing?" and "How do they relate to my overall life and career goals?" Today's blossoming workforce will readily decline a higher paying role for one where they feel they're positively contributing to society and fulfilling their own purpose. According to NACE's 2021 Student Survey Report, 75 percent of recent college graduates rated finding a job where the "organization helps improve my community/country/world" as being a higher attribute while on the job hunt, in comparison to a higher starting pay.

Explore and offer non-traditional benefits:

As COVID-19 transformed the workplace, Gen Z'ers entered the workforce with the ability to work from home. The benefits of saving time commuting to and from work and constant flexibility are all they know in their careers up to this point. As these professionals grow into managers, executives at all levels will be forced to shift their mindset about working from home (or working from anywhere, for that matter!) as the younger generation has already adapted and grown accustomed to this benefit.

While giving up this level of control feels daunting to many business owners, myself included, it is no different than millennials' demands 10+ years ago for working on teams versus in silos, digital communications and expectations for transparency from employers, which we all became accustomed to and are now norms in the workplace.

Other non-traditional benefits, such as paid volunteer hours, continuing education stipends, DEI&B committees, paid mental health days and donation matching can go a long way with younger talent. This generation equally values professional development, self-care and the community at-large, so these work perks are of high interest to them.

Competitive pay is still a top priority:

At Ampersand, we shifted our business model to provide interns with paid internship opportunities in the companies we match them with for many reasons (mostly it was the right thing to do), and the shift dramatically increased the interns' commitment to the work, the accountability and the ability to recruit higher quality talent. By offering a paid internship to aspiring young professionals, we are appreciating their worth while concurrently closing the equity gap created by unpaid internships.

Simultaneously, our business partners are able to keep professionals engaged in day-to-day work, and allow them to earn a living with a fair wage. While most internships force young professionals to choose between getting the experience and getting paid, we provide young professionals with both!

Don’t overlook the power of interns:

Interns can be a powerful tool to propel a business forward. Many young professionals are brimming with new ideas and can make a significant impact within a business. Furthermore, National Association of Colleges and Employers' research shows that 32 percent of interns initially hired by a company for an internship are likely to stay more than a year in an entry level role than new hires. Additionally, hiring interns could be the perfect solution to offset employee turnover during "The Great Resignation," since they are able to take the load off of other employees who may be feeling burnt out or overwhelmed.

While interns can be valuable additions to help reduce the workload of full-time employees, we also understand the work and time commitment it takes to train interns, which is why Ampersand was created. Ampersand's curriculum teaches young professionals solid work practices, such as how to actively participate in a business meeting, presentation skills, communicating with managers and managing their workload. Overall, Ampersand's curriculum increases a young professional's contribution to businesses while providing a solid foundation for the young professional to launch their career.

Ampersand has had over 250 young professionals graduate the program, and their experience with us has only propelled them further to thrive in their places of work. We encourage our professional alumni to show up to the workplace with their own unique personalities and requests, but we have taught them to do so in a respectful and professional manner. With that, we hope that employers will see the benefits to bringing on skilled interns who can contribute in a meaningful way to the organization, regardless of background or previous experience. And in doing so, we're confident employers can buffer the impacts of—or even avoid—this recent wave of mass turnovers.

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Allie Danziger is the co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Ampersand Professionals.


Two hiring managers weigh in on corporate DEI initiatives amid the pandemic in a guest article for InnovationMap. Photo via Pexels

How Houston companies can use pandemic challenges to foster innovative corporate inclusion efforts

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They say necessity is the mother of invention, and over the last 18 months, that proverb has proven true across the world, from classrooms to boardrooms. Shuttered classrooms and businesses, overflowing hospitals, and social unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd have forced communities and leaders across the world, and here at home, to find innovative solutions to a myriad of problems.

But even as many people long for a return to normalcy, the truth is that, in many ways, the bell cannot be "unrung." Remote work, which was a necessity for many at the height of the pandemic, has given rise to an explosion of hybrid working environments that show no signs of reversing course. In the midst of this physical separation among colleagues, leaders across industries have been forced to throw out the rulebook and reimagine what it means to collaborate.

Additionally, the disparate impact experienced by communities of color throughout the pandemic has highlighted the importance of programs focused on increasing diversity and promoting inclusion. It is no coincidence, for example, that roughly six months into the pandemic, the general counsels of 12 major financial institutions penned an open letter to the legal community calling for greater inclusivity in the legal community.

So, how can companies transform the struggles presented by the pandemic into a springboard for lasting, innovative inclusion efforts? The answer lies in taking risks, strengthening the fabric of connectivity, and looking to the future.

Crowdsource new ideas

The concept of crowdsourcing is nothing new, but at the corporate level, leaders may overlook its benefits. Hackathons—large, collaborative events originally developed for computer programming or coding—can be implemented across all employment levels to crowdsource innovative ideas.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, the firm implements the Hackathon concept during the summer associate program, thus harnessing the creativity and progressive ideas of younger talent. When the pandemic forced the firm's 2020 summer program to go entirely virtual, the firm decided to create groups of summer associates across all offices to brainstorm programming ideas aimed at improving and sustaining diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Together with partner leaders, these summer associate teams worked virtually to create truly innovative programming ideas, several of which the firm is currently implementing to recruit diverse talent. The program was successfully replicated in summer 2021, asking participants to hack the problem of associate inclusion. In addition to generating important programming content, these Hackathons increased participant morale, encouraged cross-office collaboration, forged new relationships across various geographic regions, and tackled the timely topics of enhancing law firm diversity and inclusion that will improve client service in the future.

Other industries—from large, global corporations to small businesses—can implement the Hackathon concept to successfully build bridges and harness innovation around inclusion. For example, MIT recently held a successful hackathon to source solutions to the problem of student inclusion during the pandemic, and Microsoft sponsored a hackathon aimed at solving the education and technology gaps of remote learning brought on by the pandemic.

Moreover, experts agree that equity and inclusion initiatives are only successful with buy-in from the c-suite. In other words, fostering an inclusive corporate culture starts at the top. If corporate leadership participates in the Hackathon experience—as a mentor, judge, or coach, perhaps—as opposed to merely sponsoring the event, it sends a message to all employees that the company as a whole values inclusion as a cornerstone of corporate culture.

Embrace virtual connections

The pandemic forced us all to navigate the world of virtual meetings, and with the popularity of hybrid working environments, virtual connectivity is here to stay. Companies must embrace this new virtual frontier and implement programs that engage employees, promote collaboration, and introduce an element of fun.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, new hires create introductory videos about themselves that are globally shared firm-wide, while veteran lawyers create their own video content introducing themselves and their practices, thus creating an immediate personal connection.

Additionally, virtual events celebrating diversity and inclusion events, such as Black History Month and LGBTQ Pride Month for example, provide opportunities for fellowship across offices and bolster inclusion efforts. Hunton Andrews Kurth hosted a virtual cooking class, based in a Dallas partner's kitchen, celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, which was virtually attended by 132 attorneys firm wide.

Company-wide virtual events such as escape rooms, cocktail-making classes, games and trivia build camaraderie, which deepens the bonds of collegiality and strengthens feelings of inclusion and belonging. Companies should invest in virtual technologies to help facilitate this important new frontier of connectivity, recognizing that increased digital connectivity supports a collaborative and inclusive working environment.

Highlight community outreach

In global companies, high-level, company-wide diversity and inclusion leadership should work in tandem with leadership at the local level. At our firm, for example, in addition to firm-wide diversity leadership, each local office has a specified leader committed to promoting local inclusion initiatives. While virtual events help connect geographically-diverse employees, it is equally important to offer local employees opportunities to connect in person with one another and support diversity programming in the community.

For example, attorneys in Hunton Andrews Kurth's Richmond office recently came together to learn about and pool resources to support a local artist's public art project focused on creating murals to promote open dialogue around racial and social justice. Additionally, employees might select a local DEI educational experience in which to participate as a group outside of the office, then plan to gather informally (in person or virtually) to discuss lessons learned and continue important conversations. When colleagues come together to support local inclusion programs or participate in shared experiences, new connections are forged that help support a diverse and inclusive corporate culture.

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Rudene Mercer Haynes is a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, serves as a firmwide hiring partner, and also sits on the executive committee. Alex Gomez is also a partner and serves as a fellow firmwide hiring partner.

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, explains Renewable Energy Certificates work and their impact on Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

Houston expert: Why higher REC prices are good for the future of renewables

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We all know what renewable energy is — wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydropower — but how do you purchase it? It's invisible. Not to mention when energy from any source enters the electricity grid, there's no way to track all those electrons.

Renewable Energy Certificates have made it possible

Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, allow us to track your clean energy. Each individual REC represents one megawatt-hour of clean energy generated. And while a REC isn't technically electricity, it represents the clean energy going into the electricity grid—meaning homes and businesses claim their commitment to renewable energy if their electricity is supported by RECs.

It's also important to understand what a renewable energy certificate is not: an offset. An offset represents a metric ton of emissions avoided and a REC represents 1 MWh of clean energy generated. While each have similar goals, they are not quite the same thing.

Not all RECs are created equally

The market for RECs is fluid. Due to the growth of the renewable energy market, RECs have been oversupplied for years. This has created low prices and little-to-no financial advantage for the facilities that generate clean electricity (e.g., wind facilities, solar farms, hydro plants).

In Texas, the retail electricity market is inundated with renewable electricity claims said to be supported by RECs. The energy plan you sign up for might come from solar, wind, biomass, or even trash incineration, but the renewable energy facilities likely are coming from outside Texas, located in places like California, Canada, or elsewhere. While there's no wrong way to switch to renewable energy, supporting renewable energy sources inside Texas helps Texans move closer to being a more sustainable state.

Choosing Texas renewable energy plans and your actions do have a true, real-world impact more than ever before

Some critics have argued that REC-supported renewable energy plans don't meet the highest standard of sustainability arguing RECs are not foundational to the existence of renewable energy assets. In other words, they argue that RECs don't provide a material revenue source for renewable projects because they don't incentivize new developments of renewable facilities to be built.

When RECs were trading for less than a dollar, this was a valid argument. But that was then, and this is now.

In the last year alone, voluntary renewable energy certificate prices have skyrocketed and are now between $7 and $10 per MWh. This means RECs can now contribute up to 30 percent of a renewable facility's revenue. Naturally, this encourages more and more clean-energy facilities and clean-energy jobs to be created. A win-win.

What about Power Purchase Agreements?

A Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA, is a tad different than a REC. In a PPA, the developer of a renewable project (solar arrays at a solar farm, or turbines at a wind farm) can sell the actual energy it produces over a 10-to-20-year contract.

While the sale of this renewable energy still contributes to a larger portion of project revenues, the revenue mix has clearly shifted, and RECs cannot be considered an immaterial incentive anymore. Sure, PPAs are a stronger market signal for renewable project development, but only a couple of hundred organizations globally utilize PPAs. This makes them very challenging for businesses to access.

Through PPAs, various risks, credit needs, and long-term commitments create challenges for many organizations to meet their sustainability goals. So, while RECs do not provide as material of a market signal as PPAs, with the recent changes in market prices, RECs can now be considered a meaningful, profitable market signal for renewable projects.

Making the future of renewable energy in Texas even brighter.

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P.J. Popovic is the CEO of Houston-based Rhythm.

Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Now is the time to support BIPOC-owned small businesses

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It's clear that the pandemic continues to negatively impact many businesses, and chief among them small, minority-owned businesses. In fact, a study from late last year revealed that minority-owned organizations have been hit disproportionately hard – Black business owners experienced a 41 percent drop in business activity, while Latinx business activity dropped by 35 percent and Asian business activity dropped 26 percent.

Of course, COVID-19 is not the only obstacle that small and minority-owned businesses face. They are also contending with systemic social and economic injustices, civil and social unrest, as well as environmental events. In fact, the pandemic has further spotlighted these ongoing inequities in our communities.

In Houston, nearly 30 percent of startup companies are minority-owned, and studies indicate that Black neighborhoods have driven the majority of start-up growth during the pandemic. These small businesses and their owners have been in survival mode, using their skills, creativity, resources and capacities to keep their doors open and their businesses profitable — but this heavy burden should not fall on them alone.

After all, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. When they don't make it, our nation as a whole suffers: skyrocketing unemployment rates, reduced consumer spending and less optimistic long-term forecasts for all businesses, among other effects. But when they succeed, we all succeed.

Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses — and that's why last year Comcast created its initiative, Comcast RISE, to help these businesses resolve their challenges and find long-term success.

As part of the first wave of RISE — which stands for "Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment" — we gave eligible minority-owned small businesses located in Houston (and in four other U.S. cities severely impacted by COVID-19) the chance to apply for direct grants of $10,000. More than 700 small businesses received these grants, including more than 200 businesses based in the Houston area. Now, the second round of applications for RISE grants is open, and 100 lucky applicants will be chosen to each receive $10,000.

Two local businesses have already experienced the positive impact that these grants can provide. Ashley Gomez, 132 Design partner – a brand and web design company for small businesses – used their business' RISE grant to invest in technology and professional development for the staff. Since then, 132 Design has seen a 30 percent increase in revenue. Meanwhile, Cori Xiong, owner of the Houston-area staple Mala Sichuan Bistro, was able to pay off her extra business expenses associated with the pandemic, as well as invest in publicity and marketing efforts for her storefronts.

Here's what you need to know if you're a small business owner interested in applying for a grant. If your minority-owned business is eligible — that is, at least 51 percent minority-owned, independently owned and operated, registered as a business in the U.S., in operation for more than a year, and located in Harris or Fort Bend county— simply fill out the form on the Comcast RISE website between October 1 and 14, 2021.

We, at Comcast, are deeply committed to helping drive change and bolster the process of correcting social and economic injustices. The Comcast RISE program helps meaningfully impact and support the small businesses that are shaping our communities. At the end of the day, our economy's success is just part of the equation. It's on all of us to ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion for our communities.

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Vince Margiotta is the vice president at Comcast Business.

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3 businesses join Houston initiative for carbon capture and storage

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Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

Texas doctor dives into Shark Tank with invention that stops hiccups

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Humans are weird. Take, as a perfect example, the phenomenon of hiccups — the sudden and involuntary spasm of the diaphragm muscle between regular breaths. All humans experience them, and so do other mammals and even amphibians. But we’re guessing other animals don’t approach treating hiccups in the wacky ways humans do.

For instance, some less-than-successful hiccup remedies of lore include sipping water upside down (and subsequently trying to not drown), holding one’s breath for a long time (and often hiccupping throughout the hold anyway), sucking on a peppermint, gagging oneself or pulling on the tongue, and even gobbling up a spoonful of peanut butter to help change the breathing and swallowing pattern.

The truth is those ideas are mostly a waste of breath. Luckily, one San Antonio doctor has invented a device that supposedly instantly relieves hiccups — and his invention is getting so much attention that he’s even hooked a chance to pitch the product on a new episode of ABC’s entrepreneurial-focused reality show, Shark Tank.

Dr. Ali Seifi, a neurointensivist at UT Health San Antonio and the inventor of the aptly named HiccAway, will appear on an episode of Shark Tank that airs tonight, January 21 at 7 pm.

HiccAway, a straw-like device that a hiccup sufferer uses to sip water through, is likely to wow the sharks — maybe even take their breath away? — as it is the world’s first scientifically proven medical product that safely relieves hiccups.

In fact, HiccAway was recently the subject of an article in JAMA Network Open, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association Network. The article addresses a four-month cross-sectional study of 249 participants from multiple countries that found that HiccAway stopped hiccups in almost 92 percent of cases and was rated a heck of a lot more favorably than home remedies.

“I believe that the science behind our product is what makes our product trustworthy and reliable. There are many hiccup remedies that are all hit and miss with no exact science to them,” Seifi says. “Some healthcare products claim they can cure a medical condition, but they don’t have scientific backup to support the product. I can confidently state that HiccAway is one of the few products on Shark Tank so far with a strong published research study as a backup.”

While hiccups are simply an annoyance for most of us, they can also be chronic for patients with cancer, meningitis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain or thoracic injury, and even for patients who have had surgery that requires anesthesia.

“After I witnessed my own neurology patients suffering from hiccups without an effective treatment, I was inspired to develop a safe and effective device that would be simple to use and easily available to all people,” Seifi says. “When you forcefully sip water through the device, it keeps the phrenic and vagus nerves occupied, so they don’t have enough time to cause unwanted spasms in the diaphragm. This interruption stops the hiccups.”

While the HiccAway device is already available to purchase through hiccaway.com and on Amazon, as well as at walmart.com and even in H-E-B stores throughout South Texas and at heb.com, Shark Tank (which boasts a viewing audience of about 7 million) could propel HiccAway and Seifi into a new realm of entrepreneurial success.

“For me, the experience was surreal,” says Victor Fehlberg, president and CEO of Higher Innovations Inc., which manufactures and distributes HiccAway from the Denver area. “It took so long to prepare, so much time was spent waiting, that when the pitch and appearance were finally recorded, it went too fast. It was like I was dreaming because it had been so long in the making.”

The Shark Tank appearance is likely a dream come true for Seifi and the HiccAway team — and a total breath of fresh air for the hiccup-suffering public.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.