Deal-hungry venture capitalists have been pouring money into late-stage investments -- companies that are near an initial public offering -- at a faster pace than at any time since the mid-1980s.

The late-stage cash is flowing so fast that by the end of the year as many as 300 companies will have registered their intention to go public, according to IPO Vital Signs, a Web-based service for such companies.

Despite this recent uptick in activity, the venture and IPO markets aren't what they were during the tech bubble and may never again be as robust -- or as risky.

The evidence suggests that both venture capitalists -- many of which haven't seen a decent return on an IPO since the bubble burst -- and public investors are being far more diligent in the companies they'll invest in.

The majority of IPOs are now profitable before they go public, a complete reversal from many of their predecessors that debuted in the late '90s.

This is good news for individual investors. IPOs in today's market may not deliver the huge one-day returns to the institutions that bankrolled them as they once did, but they are likely to live longer and deliver more consistent returns to everyday investors, another difference from the late '90s.

During the last three months of 2003, companies nearing their public debut attracted $1.5 billion, the highest level of late-stage investments in two years. For the full year, later-stage investment totaled $4.7 billion, or 26% of all venture capital, the highest level in at least two decades, according to Thomson Venture Economics.

Late-stage investments are typically made in companies ready to go public, and represent a way for venture investors to get a relatively quick return on capital. After the profit-starved years of 2001 and 2002, such investors believe that the stock market will once again reward start-ups. (Early stage investments are those made in companies that are further away from going public, and thus represent a longer-term play.)

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