Decisions, decisions...

Otago Daily Times, 21 Aug 2004

Dr Paul Hansen
Age: 38
Job: Senior lecturer, economics
Education: Bachelor of Commerce (Otago), postgraduate diploma in commerce (Otago), Master of Economics (Australia National University) and PhD (Otago) (New Zealand Universities postgraduate scholarship and Donald Reid scholarship).

If you have ever agonised over a decision, you might wish Dr Paul Hansen had come along sooner. Dr Hansen, who says he is indecisive himself, has co-invented a clever programme, which, at a few clicks of a mouse, can make sophisticated decisions for you.

The programme, "Point*Wizard", looks likely to make the academic and his business partner Franz Ombler, rich, and represents that rare shift from elegant theory to exciting application.

But Dr Hansen (38) is no ordinary academic. He cuts a somewhat contradictory figure. At first glance, he appears the archetypical surfer longish, sandy hair, cheeky grin and the occasional loud shirt. His choice of transport is a chopper-style bicycle. He lives in Dunedin, where he grew up, because he loves to surf and loves the lifestyle.

But this is a man who also loves the dry discipline of economics and writes papers with impenetrable titles, such as Inference on productivity differentials in multisector models of economic growth.
He gets excited when the conversation turns to economies and rates a meeting with top economists as a life highlight.

"It was the most amazing time. In one week, I saw seven Nobel Prize-winning economists. It excites me to tears," he says, describing a sabbatical spent at the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden. That which excites him most, however is Point*Wizard. For more than a decade, Dr Hansen has been musing over the dilemma of dilemmas. That is, how many possible permutations and alternatives must be considered when making a decision.

Mathematically, there are millions of combinations of factors that can go into one decision. The question was how to harness these. "I had a eureka moment. This was just an academic problem and I wanted it to be something people could actually use," he says. Dr Hansen met Mr Ombler for a coffee in Wellington (the pair had worked together while Dr Hansen was on secondment to Treasury) and discussed his idea.
"Wouldn't it be cool if we could get this published in a maths journal," he said. "His [Mr Ombler's] eyes lit up and my heart flipped. I knew he was the man for me," Dr Hansen says, admitting his passion for his project sounds more like a love affair than work. “It just grew and we are just at the stage where it is all coming together,” he says.

For the past 18 months, the pair have been pouring their energy into the New Zealand and world patent process. Already, Point*Wizard is being tested by the Ministry of Health, with a view to using it to better assess and rank patients waiting for heart or orthopaedic surgery, and Transfund, for ranking spending priorities for roading projects. Dr Hansen has been in talks with Australian communications giant Telstra, which has invited him to Melbourne to further investigate the product.

Last week, Dr Hansen and Mr Ombler were awarded an Enterprise Development Grant from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, which will help fund the prohibitively expensive patent-application process. They are also looking for sales partners in New Zealand and overseas.

Dr Hansen, who has specialised in the economics of the health-care system (health-care priority setting and resource allocation), had envisaged Point*Wizard would be used exclusively by the health system, but as the idea developed, its wider application became apparent. The system which can be accessed through the Internet (www.pointwizard com), is designed to used even for simple decisions and Dr Hansen has a vision that one day, it will be available in a palm version.

"I want people to be able to use it to decide what to order at a restaurant," he jokes. In the meantime, he is concentrating on finalising the patent and, of course, on his day job as an academic and teacher.

But is he enjoying life? "I am having the best time of my life. It’s so much fun: the excitement — the intellectual excitement — of working this out," he says.

Now, that sounds suspiciously decisive.