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The Chilean tech visionary behind NZ’s big venture capitalism push

The technology subsector in venture capitalism is thriving, especially in New Zealand, where the government is putting its money where its talent is. An increasingly vital part of this growth is WNT Ventures' Maria Jose Alvarez, who has already been marked as a 'women of influence' in her adopted home.

When young biotechnology engineer Maria Jose Alvarez returned to her native Chile from New York in 2009, she knew she had to go to New Zealand. “I saw something on television about life in New Zealand, and how technology was developing rapidly there in 2009,” she tells The Inside Adviser. “I can’t explain it, but I felt a strong need to go there and that feeling didn’t leave me until I left in 2016.”

When she finally made it, Alvarez realised she’d made a significant miscalculation. At that time, New Zealand wasn’t quite ready for Alvarez.

“When I arrived I realised the scene was starting to develop but much smaller and less mature than I originally anticipated,” she says.

  • Not one to shirk a challenge, Alvarez went about combining her technical background with business acumen through a series of moves that established the young Chilean as a serious force in the emerging technology VC scene. She joined Auckland University’s commercialisation team and started helping other scientists deploy capital before taking a similar role, on a much bigger scale, at New Zealand Growth Capital Partners, the country’s own sovereign venture capital fund.

    “Every VC transaction that the Crown was doing came through my desk,” she recalls. “I was managing a portfolio of 52 companies when I started and the fund had about 160 companies by the time I left.”

    It was a startling ascendency for the young scientist from Osorno. Alvarez was nominated as one of the New Zealand’s ‘Women of Influence’ in 2021 after participating in 27 capital raises and completing investment rounds surpassing $45 million in 2021, as well as mentoring countless first-time founders.

    Much of that ascendency is linked the work Alvarez has done at WNT Ventures, the trailblazing venture capital firm she now runs with fellow managing partner Carl Jones. After launching its first NZ$3.35 million fund supporting deep technology founders in 2014 (already fully returned with three successful investments remaining), WNT Ventures is now raising its fourth fund with a target range of NZ$35 million.

    Alvarez originally joined WNT Ventures in 2021 as an investment manager, but it wasn’t long before she was asked to take a stronger hand in the company.

    “Carl and I knew of each other, but after I joined WNT we got along really well and seemed to have the same vision of what we wanted for the fund,” she says. “Carl has more of a pure financial background and I come from a more technical background, so it works really well in terms of how we approach growing the team and the portfolio of companies. By 2022 the partnership conversation became more evident and then we made it official in March, 2023.”

    The New Zealand deep technology venture capitalism scene may have been in its youth back in 2016, but it is now recognised globally as one of the world’s most promising and fastest growing. With support from the New Zealand government, WNT Ventures is helping to develop companies that do everything from automate haircuts to produce catalyst-coated membranes that enhance fuel cell technologies.

    According to Alvarez, the growth to this point – of both WNT Ventures and the scene in New Zealand  – is just the start.

    “There’s so much intellectual capital in NZ, and we’re getting better and better at finding ways to support founders to bring their ideas to life,” she says.

    Tahn Sharpe

    Tahn is managing editor across The Inside Network's three publications.

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