Editor’s note: RTP Beat is a regular feature on Thursdays.It was the year when the market for initial public offerings nearly evaporated, with a measly 81 companies pricing during the year.

It was the year SCO launched a lawsuit against IBM. It was the year we went to war with Iraq … again. And in the last week of December, it became the year mad-cow disease hit U.S. shores.

On the positive side, 2003 was the same year the Dow crept back over 10,000. It was the year we caught Saddam Hussein and the year online holiday shopping exploded. But skeptics and optimists alike can agree on one thing: 2003 is over, and there’s little reason to look back on the past couple of years when companies did little more than struggle to stay alive.

After all, 2004 already appears to be full of promise: The New Year rang in with a flawless landing on Mars, and Nasdaq reaching a two-year high. Wall Street darling Google is expected to make its big debut on the Street, harking back to the good ol’ pre-bust days. With this brewing optimism, it wasn’t difficult to find executives, venture capitalists and professors to prognosticate what’s in store for 2004. Here are their prophecies:

“It will be another good year for biotech in North Carolina. We will continue to build on initiatives that were begun in prior years and greatly strengthened in [2003]. I expect to see more companies decide to locate or expand in NC, in the areas of bio-manufacturing and pharmaceutical manufacturing. The experts are predicting that 2004 will provide a good IPO window for biotech firms. We’re cautiously optimistic that that will help in many ways, by providing liquidity to the venture capitalists and having more early-stage venture capital available to help support our industry. We’re going to see more startups.” – Leslie Alexandre, president and CEO of the N.C. Biotechnology Center

“In 2004 it will become clear to everyone that the momentum to digitize and network our society never really slowed down when the speculation bubble burst. The hype of 1999 will be seen to be reality in 2004. People will come to expect Internet access everywhere. Predictably, there will be another backlash, but this time it won’t be against the technology itself, but because people will become aware that we have to handle it with care and pay more attention to security, privacy and the mountains of ni-cad batteries leaching into our landfills. We will also have a major digital meltdown of some kind; it could be cyber-terrorism, but more likely it will be an accident.” – Jeff Chase, associate professor of computer science at Duke University

“Two words come to mind when I think of 2004: Potential liquidity. For the first time in three years, I think we have the potential to see liquidity events nationally as well as possibly in the Triangle. That’s a result of the public markets coming back. I really think that with the Orbitz and Google IPO coming out in the spring, you’ll start to see the IPO market not to the level it was three or four years ago, but it’ll give local companies the chance to go public. That wouldn’t have even been an option a year ago.

“Once we have some liquidity events, it will bring investments back into the early-stage market. What we’ll also see is more and more individuals considering starting their own companies.” – Ben Brooks, founding partner of Southern Capitol Ventures

“One of the things we’re going to see is continued in-fighting, and it could be friendly or less than friendly, between some of the cities. Right now there’s a bit of a back and forth between Holly Springs and Cary. Both are trying to claim the land between the two cities. As we go through 2004, it’s going to be evident to some of the other cities and townships that a land grab will occur. I think the bigger cities will have the edge, but I don’t know that necessarily means they’re going to win. It’s really about who can implement the change the fastest.” – Dave Murray, president of ClearImage PR

“Marketing spending will increase; we’ve already seen that over the fourth quarter period. Things will continue to accelerate in 2004. However, if there’s a radical switch in the White House, I think you’ll see a significant pullback in business for at least six months because of the uncertainty.

“Second, we’ll probably see one to two reasonably high-profile life science acquisitions in the first quarter of 2004.” – Scott Place, president of Maverick Marketing

“Last year we saw a gradual recovery in the economy and stock market, this year we will see a gradual recovery in the tech sector. I see evolutionary technologies succeeding for the next two years. When I say evolutionary, I mean newly established technologies like wi-fi, Internet-based applications and enterprise software, that don’t change the world, but make it better. The far-out, revolutionary technology people are still hiding in their shells, and probably won’t start surfacing for another year or so. We are about two years away from the next bubble, but no doubt that will happen, and history will repeat itself.” –Vivek Wadhwa, founder and chairman of Relativity Technologies

“Interest in mergers and acquisitions is picking up. The valuations on the M&A side are growing to the point where right now if a company has true value, it can get a significantly better valuation in an M&A transaction than in a private equity financing. A possible implication of this is increasing private company valuations down the road in the latter half of 2004.” – Bud Whitmeyer, general partner at Research Triangle Ventures

Have other predictions? Email Cal at: cal@localtechwire.com.