Hoodia finds life after Unilever

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Unilever, Chief executive officer, Hoodia

Phytopharm, the UK start-up Unilever dumped in November after spending more than €20m euros in a failed attempt to develop a hoodia-based weight management product, says it is in discussions with major food and food supplements players about the South African fruit extract.

Some of the potential partners were “of a similar profile to Unilever”​ but interim chief operating officer, Keith Thomson, said the company was “open to exploring collaborative structures”​ with European and international partners.

“One of the good things to come out of the Unilever situation is that we have greater flexibility to deal with the ingredient,”​ Thomson told NutraIngredients.com.

“It was a setback when they decided not to proceed with the ingredient, and they have their reasons for that, but we are very positive about its future.”

In a statement, Phytopharm said it would be putting more resources behind its pharma operations that include the neural ingredients Cogane and Myogane as part of a “major review of business strategy”.

This restructuring meant reducing staff levels from 40 to 25 and implementing “a cost saving programme” ​that would reduce the company’s overall expenditure by 20 per cent.

It said its management team was “devoting considerable effort to generating such funding from specific charities, grant funding as well as other viable sources.”

Unilever leaving

But in regard to its functional food operations, Phytopharm in a statement admitted it had been a difficult four months following the collapse of the partnership with Unilever.

That separation saw then chief executive officer, Daryl Rees, and chief financial officer, Piers Morgan,​resign over an undisclosed dispute about the terms of the dissolution, and Thomson and CEO Sandy Morrison took up interim positions. The company is searching for a new CEO.

“Our functional food programme was negatively impacted by the Unilever decision not to proceed with the Hoodia extract programme,”​ Phytopharm said.

“The Company is still firmly committed to the potential benefits of Hoodia extract as a functional food targeting weight management and is in early stage discussions with a number of interested alternative partners. It is Phytopharm’s intention to find a partner or licence the Hoodia programme if a satisfactory business proposition emerges.”

But in the meantime it would “limit expenditure on this programme”.

Upon pulling out of the partnership in November, Unilever global media relations director, Trevor Gorin said: “Data suggests using the extract would not meet our safety and efficacy standards​. We have entered talks with Phytopharm to end the partnership.”

But Gorin would not reveal the safety and efficacy grounds on which the ingredient failed Unilever, nor why such information was not available before Unilever and Phytopharm signed the deal in December, 2004.

When asked if Unilever was of the opinion hoodia did not work as a weight-loss ingredient, Gorin said, “not in Unilever-branded products”.

Hoodia gordonii​ is a small cactus that grows in the Kalahari desert and is believed to act as a "satiety stimulator"​. Phytopharm gained a global license to market it in 1997.

Its flesh has been eaten by the San people of the Kalahari desert for centuries to suppress appetite and research has isolated a molecule within the plant, given the name P 57, that appears to possess appetite suppression properties.

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