MJ’s mission to take deep-tech start-ups to the world
Maria Jose (MJ) Alvarez is invested in science in more ways than one.
Not only is she passionate about the power it holds to make the world a better place, she also helps transform good science into commercial success for New Zealand.
MJ came to study for her Master’s in Bioscience Enterprise at the University of Auckland in 2016, having already created a science-based business during her undergraduate years in Chile. The biotechnology engineer now works as an Investment Manager for venture capital firm WNT Ventures, providing early-stage funding and mentoring for deep-tech start-ups.
“These are companies founded on breakthrough science or engineering. They use science as a fundamental way of changing how things are done,” she says.
It was a brief reference to New Zealand in a news item screened in Chile which sparked the idea of moving here. “It was talking about how the technology sector was thriving. I just felt that I really needed to come, so I bought a one-way ticket.”
MJ says she never had any doubts about what she was doing, but it was still a huge decision. “I’m the first one in my family to get a Master’s degree and the first one to leave my country, so it was a big deal,” she says. “It was essentially a bet on things being better here.”
Bioscience Enterprise programme a winner
“I had a vision of what New Zealand could be like and it was aligned with what I wanted my life and career to be. I honestly didn’t see myself being anywhere else.”
MJ says the Master’s in Bioscience Enterprise is a blend of science, business, and law; and an internationally reputable programme. “You generally come to it with a science background, and then acquire legal and business acumen.
“I knew since having my own start-up experience that I wanted to be in the business of science and deep-tech commercialisation. The Master’s course provided a global perspective of what I had already been doing a few years earlier.”
MJ arrived in New Zealand just as venture capital was starting to gain momentum. “Pairing that timing with the education I got was a really good catalyst for being part of the venture capital scene.”
While her connections with the university helped opened doors, getting established in the science community in New Zealand has still taken hard work and commitment. Last year, MJ was named a finalist in the Diversity category at the Women of Influence Awards, public recognition of her work mentoring women in deep-tech start-ups and venture capital.
Award a “huge honour”
“Since arriving in 2016, in the space that I have occupied I have been the only Latin American, and often the only woman. The award recognises my work in trying to get more women investing in companies and more women funded in their businesses. It’s a huge honour.”
MJ is confident she is in the right place doing the right thing. “New Zealand is an amazing place to be based, because the quality of our research is world-class and that means the opportunity to commercialise leading technologies from science or engineering are comparable to other markets. The difference is that we can use the ‘NZ Inc’ brand reputation to take those businesses global.”
“We are a multi-cultural society and that makes many of our companies global from the moment of conception. New Zealand values that world view.”
She has big ambitions for what the science innovation and big tech space can achieve in Aotearoa. “My goal is to be a catalyst in making that happen.”
Despite New Zealand being home now, MJ’s links to Chile remain strong. Outside of her day job, she finds time to support Start-Up Science, the Chilean Ministry of Science’s deep-tech Seed Accelerator and Fund, and has collaborated with the work being done by the Latin America New Zealand Business Council and Latin America Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence (CAPE) in building the relationship between the two countries.
“It feels good now that I am in a secure position in New Zealand to give back to Chile. If I can help to bridge that gap, then I’m happy to do it.”
MJ acknowledges that her life would probably look quite different if she hadn’t come to study in New Zealand and urges other Latin American students to take the plunge. “New Zealand opens a door to bigger and better opportunities. You cannot imagine the positive outcome that lies ahead.