Phytopharm, which had initially developed the compound for the pharma industry, said today that it will receive initial payments of approximately £6.5 million (€9.4 million) from Unilever, out of a potential total of £21 million.
Phytopharm will also get an undisclosed royalty on sales of all products containing the extract.
The first new hoodia products, which would "probably reach the market in three years", according to Unilever spokesman Trevor Gorin, may come under the SlimFast brand or be included in other Unilever brands.
The novel ingredient could help Unilever revamp its weight loss products line, which has seen sales shrink in the face of the Atkins trend. While the group has carried out a revamp of the entire SlimFast brand, and reorganization of the business to allow for closer cooperation with its food business, the products have not recovered their previous market share.
SlimFast nevertheless holds 25 per cent of the US weight loss market - the world's biggest, at more than $3 billion per year - and Unilever will be keen to reinforce this position in a booming weight loss sector that targets more than 1 billion overweight adults around the world.
The deal with an external company demonstrates a new departure for Unilever.
"This agreement is slightly unusual in that we have traditionally done all our R&D in house. But over the last two years we have started to look at R&D in a different way, trying to working more comprehensively with academia and other companies," Gorin told NutraIngredients.com.
"We expect to see an increasing number of these type of relationships."
The Phytopharm product, called p57, has been isolated from an extract of Hoodia gordonii, a rare cactus native to the Kalahari desert. It was licensed exclusively by Phytopharm from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1997.
The molecule is thought to target the satiety centre in the brain, reducing the desire to eat. In a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study on 18 overweight men, researchers reported a statistically significant reduction on average daily calorie intake and also body fat content.
But there is significant work to be done before new foods containing the product reach the market. The two companies will collaborate on the necessary research and development to include evaluating safe dosage levels of the extract and gaining regulatory approval for the ingredient, as well as testing its efficacy in food applications.
Unilever will also be involved in managing the raw materials and will support the international patent programme for the products.
Phytopharm recently raised approximately £6.5 million (€9.7m) through a share placement to increase production of the hoodia plant by 100 times its current capacity.