"I am optimistic, but at the same time I see no reason to think 2002 will be an improvement over 2001," said Andrew Kaye, managing director and head of the Israel office of the Robertson Stephens investment bank, yesterday at the bank's seventh conference in Israel.

A thousand people signed up for the conference. That's the same as last year, but fewer were foreign ? only 100.

The conference is the second one the bank has held since Evergreen Canada Israel Investments left the partnership and Robertson Stephens became the full owner.

"We intend to continue strengthening our foothold in Israel," says Mitch Whiteford, Robertson Stephens' director of capital markets, "and we view the annual conference as an opportunity for investors to invest in companies in their early stages."

Something always happens on the political front
The bank underscored its decision to hold the conference in Israel in spite of the political tensions. Whiteford even said that every time the conference was to be held in Israel, "something happened". In 1995 the conference was held several days after the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Other conferences were held as the situation in Iraq escalated, and last year's took place just as the Al-Aqsa intifada
began to take form.

"Investors are certainly afraid to come to Israel, but it has nothing to do with the investments they are willing to make in Israeli companies," says Whiteford. Kaye sings a similar tune: "I am not saying you might be able to convince a CEO of a major corporation to come to Israel, but he might agree to invest in the company, after a thorough examination of its capabilities."

Political conflicts may have not been the reason for the cancellations, but troubles at home have. Wanted to hear the presentation by Optibase (Nasdaq:OBAS)? All you got was a sign announcing its cancellation, probably because the company is in the throes of a major shakeup under its new management.

Robertson Stephens' core business has been and is private placements. "It's true we were hoping to have more public issues. Yet we are aware of the fact public offerings have become more few and far between," Kaye says.

Robertson Stephens was led the last Israeli IPO on Nasdaq, that of Verisity (Nasdaq:VRST). So far so good: It's returned 80% to investors since its issue.

Given Imaging is next
Robertson Stephens is also co-leading an IPO for Given Imaging. Kaye wouldn't get down and dirty about the company, but noted that activity in medical equipment and related fields is still lively. If everything goes according to the plans of the investment banks that are leading the company to its IPO, then the company should raise $65 million according to a market value of $325 million.

What makes Kaye so optimistic about the market and Israel in particular? "I am not a detached optimist. I have proof things are getting better and that the situation isn't as bad as some might think," he says. "I see our private investment, mergers and acquisition activity continues, and that global companies are extremely familiar with Israeli technology. The name Israel is still synonymous with excellence and technological development."

Robertson Stephens rents 670 square meters in Tel Aviv's Platinum Tower. "We have no plans to expand. I hope these offices will suffice for several years, yet we are hopeful of expanding our activity in Israel. The bank?s chief give great importance to our work here in Israel," Kaye sums up.