Nineteen venture-backed companies went public during the first quarter of this year, raising $1.5 billion and reflecting the highest number of such IPOs in Q1 since 2007, according to numbers released today by the National Venture Capital Assn. (NVCA) and Thomson Reuters.

“Between having a stable stock market and having investors who are becoming more encouraged about the IPO market in general, by the quality of the companies that are registering to go public,” says Mark Heesen, the NVCA’s president, “there is more optimism today than we’ve had in a long time.” At this point, the rest of the year looks promising for IPOs, he suggests.

But haven’t we heard this before? While reflecting an increase, the new figures aren’t far from 2011’s first-quarter figures of 14 venture-backed companies that listed their shares on national exchanges and realized $1.4 billion in proceeds.

Similarly, last April the NVCA touted those figures as marking “the strongest opening three-month period for venture-backed IPOs since 2007.” But the last half of 2011 saw a decrease in activity, with just 17 companies going public between Q3 and Q4 (adding to the year’s total of 53 venture-backed IPOs, compared with 2007’s total of 87 IPOs).

Indeed, it may be difficult for those with long memories to get Pollyannaish on the latest numbers. The IPO market was a ghost town just a few years ago: only 18 companies went public between 2008 and 2009. And Heesen cautions that the good news could go sour as it did last year if economic factors change. The forthcoming Presidential elections, increasing gas prices, and activity overseas could all have an effect on the confidence companies have in selling their shares in the open market.

For now, however, signs are pointing upward. The NVCA reports 50 venture-backed companies are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission to go public, a figure that’s been slowly growing over the past two years, Heesen says. New registrants expect to raise an average of $274 million per filing, or double the average proceeds seen in the beginning of this year, according to a report also put out today by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Facebook’s IPO, expected later this year, could encourage other, smaller companies to take the plunge as well.

Smaller companies may also be inspired by looser regulations, if President Obama signs the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) this week as expected. “Over the past several years, there has been a reticence on the part of entrepreneurs to go public,” says Heesen. “Instead of creating new technologies and new jobs, they felt they would be burdened by babysitting lawyers and accountants once they became public.”

The legislation gives so-called emerging growth companies (defined as companies with less than $1 billion in annual revenue or $75 million in market cap) a five-year reprieve on several SEC regulations, including auditor attestations of management internal-control assessments.

The break may help push more companies with venture-capital backing toward going public rather than being acquired, Heesen suggests. The venture-capital industry saw 467 M&A deals last year.

As for IPOs, the IT sector is driving the latest activity, with 11 of the 19 public offerings in the first quarter technology related. All of them are U.S.-based companies except for Vipshop Holdings, which raised $71.5 million on the New York Stock Exchange in March from its Guangzhou, China, headquarters. The largest IPO came from ExactTarget, a marketing company that raised $161.5 million.

Investors appeared to favor smaller emerging growth companies last year, according to a report last week by IPO research firm Renaissance Capital. Companies rewarded in their first foray on the public exchanges included Guidewire Software, Brightcove, and Yelp.

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