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Lizz Whitacre was so allergic to animals as a kid, her parents wouldn't let her have a pet until she was a teenager.

That didn't stop the Minnesota native from becoming an animal lover, though. As soon as she was able to read, she consumed anything she could about animals.

When it came to TV, "I only ever watched Animal Planet," she said.

Whitacre didn't limit her animal ambitions to just owning pets, either.

By senior year of high school, she was co-owner of an animal shelter in the suburbs of Minneapolis.

Despite that foray into business, Whitacre said she went into college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln "not thinking I was any sort of entrepreneur." She started out as a pre-law and pre-veterinary science major, but along the way, she caught that entrepreneurial bug.

In 2015, she pitched an idea for a downtown cat cafe, a place where people could enjoy a cup of coffee while also seeing cats that needed to be adopted.

Despite a catchy name — Caffeline — and a novel concept, she was unable to raise the nearly $140,000 she needed to get the operation off the ground.

That experience taught her a couple of things: One, she realized she really enjoyed entrepreneurship, so much so that she decided to change her major. And she realized that doing something in the for-profit realm might be a better way to fulfill her goal of helping animals.

"I decided, if I can't raise the money, maybe I can make the money," Whitacre said.

She and her partner, Justin Collier, formed Family Pet Project, a website that helps people find pets for adoption as well as pet-friendly apartments, about two years ago.

Whitacre said that once the business was up and running and doing well, she reached out to shelters, rescues and humane societies.

"I was calling to let them know we could be a resource for them when they were full and needed to turn people and their pets away," she said.

What she found was that the organizations she talked to saw potential in what the company had built as a solution to their technology problems.

"They explained how the current options were too expensive, too hard to use or just didn't fit what they needed," Whitacre said. "We checked into those claims and were surprised by the lack of technology available to the industry."

Taking a deep look at that issue led to her and Collier's latest entrepreneurial project, an analytical data management software product for animal welfare organizations.

Called Pawlytics, the software automates many of the processes animal shelters, humane societies and other animal organizations use daily, including messaging, scheduling of employees and volunteers, managing the animals that come in and organizing transport.

Whitacre said the goal is to automate a lot of the organizations' processes to help free up time from administrative tasks so they can focus on things like caring for the animals, raising money and ultimately adopting out more animals and reducing the number that are euthanized.

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There currently are about 40 organizations beta testing the software, and she said she expects all of them to convert to paying customers when the final product rolls out for sale later this summer.

One of the reasons Whitacre believes Pawlytics will be successful is its revenue model. It charges $1 per adoption, with no other fees to the users. That makes it available and affordable to animal organizations no matter their size.

So far, the company has received validation of its product from some outside sources.

Whitacre said Pawlytics received a prototype grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, and she and Collier won the grand prize of $25,000 at UNL's most recent New Venture Competition in April.

Paul Hogan, chairman and co-founder of Home Instead Senior Care, who was one of the judges for the competition, said Pawlytics is very innovative.

"Pawlytics can find success making the animal welfare industry more efficient, something that hasn’t really been seen in the past 100 years,” he said in a news release.

Whitacre was one of 10 finalists in the pitch competition at the Inside/Outside Innovation Summit in Lincoln last month, and though she didn't win either of the two investment prizes, she said she gained valuable experience.

Whitacre said some of her family and friends have invested in the company, but otherwise there is no outside investment.

She has talked with some potential investors, but they want to see how many paying customers she can get before considering investing.

Whitacre said Pawlytics' low price point and data-collection capabilities put it head and shoulders above its competitors. In addition to the U.S. market, there is a huge overseas market as well, she said.

"We're very excited to start helping and saving more (animal) lives and making a profitable business," she said.

Whitacre refers to it as "conscious capitalism."

"We can do good and we can make money," she said.

Even if Pawlytics does not pan out, you can expect Whitacre to keep following her entrepreneurial dream.

"Honestly, I just love working," she said. "Some people love playing sports, and business is a sport to me."

And her love of animals will continue, too. Despite those allergies, she owns several dogs, cats and ferrets, as well as a horse.

"I just take Claritin," she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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