Pennington Biomedical Research Center has partnered with direct-selling giant Amway Corp. to launch a weight loss program that will roll out into Amway's major markets globally.

The BodyKey SmartLoss program, a smartphone app designed by two Pennington scientists using in-house research on nutrition and obesity, offers personalized eating plans and digital coaching strategies. The program also incorporates meal replacement shakes and other  products from Amway’s existing vitamin and mineral brand Nutrilite. The program has launched in the U.S. and will roll out globally in the next 12 to 24 months, an Amway official said Wednesday.

Pennington, LSU and the inventors will get a cut of the royalties from the program's revenue. David Winwood, associate executive director of business development at Pennington, said Montclair State University, which helped with early research, also will get a small cut. Projections on the royalty amounts were unavailable.

Pennington's "bread and butter" has traditionally been landing funding from the National Institutes of Health, said John Kirwan, executive director of the center. About 90 percent of Pennington's research funding comes from federal grants. But Wednesday's announcement, of a licensing deal with a major industry player represents a shift toward a more "entrepreneurial" tact for the research center, whose research focuses on nutrition and obesity-related conditions. 

"You have to have other revenue streams," said Kirwan, who took the helm at Pennington in January. "We need to diversify so it's not just one track; we're doing multiple tracks with industry, either products like this, or it could be with pharma, or it could be with the nutrition industry." 

A handful of other products with market potential are currently in the works, Kirwan added. 

The program unveiled Wednesday is the product of three years of talks with Amway, which will push the program out to its vast network of sellers globally. Pennington scientists Leanne Redman and Corby Martin invented the weight loss program and landed $49,500 in seed funding from LSU's LIFT grant program. That program was launched in 2014 and awards grants semi-annually to LSU faculty to help bring ideas to market. The researchers also landed NIH funding early on.

Redman said the program incorporated four main elements from Pennington research: realistic weight loss goals, a highly structured meal plan, self monitoring and regular feedback. The app incorporates a weight loss graphing model that produces a customized weight loss plan, and the app tracks progress and offers feedback. Pennington scientists hand-selected the nutrition products from Amway's Nutrilite line, Redman said. 

Amway offers 450 products and operates in 100 countries, said Paul Seehra, director of global discovery research and development. The SmartLoss program launched in recent weeks in the U.S.. Over the next 12 to 24 months, Seehra said the company will push it out to all its major markets. 

The firm has increasingly shifted its focused to Asian markets, Seehra said. About one-third of Amway's revenues now come from China, where obesity is becoming a "dominant" issue. The direct seller posted $8.6 billion in sales last year, largely on growth in Asian markets, and touted a digital education product launched in the U.S. as a success story of the last year.

The partnership intersects with two sales goals Amway identified this year, as the firm shifts its focus to digital investment — a "key sales driver" in 2018 and beyond — and nutrition and weight management products, which accounts for about half of its sales. The company indicated that “greater opportunity lies ahead” with the launch of a reformulated flagship vitamin supplement product. 

"This is one of the best win-win situations we've encountered," Seehra said. "It's about applying (Pennington's) know-how and scaling it to impact the world."

Diabetes and obesity are particularly big problems in Louisiana, with one estimate pegging the financial cost of diabetes in the state at $5.7 billion. 

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.