Executives at venture-backed technology firms hoping for the “exit ramp” of initial public offerings to open wider received their wish in the fourth quarter.

As merger and acquisition activity slowed, IPO action picked up with 18 companies going public for $1.23 billion, according to Dow Jones VentureOne.

The fourth-quarter surge generated nearly a third of the entire 56 IPOs for the year. The IPO action, which included Targacept of Winston-Salem in the spring, generated $3.72 billion.

IT companies executed 20 IPOs worth $1.95 billion, nearly double the 11 deals in 2005 that were worth $682.6 million. The IT public offerings were the highest total since 2000, according to VentureOne.

A total of 28 healthcare IPOs produced $1.36 billion.

The venture-backed firms that went public had raised a median of $51 million in capital compared to the $51.4 million of 2005 IPO firms. They on average had been in business 6.2 years before the IPOs, up from a 5.6 year average in 2005.

M&A activity, meanwhile, dropped to 75 transactions, which were the fewest in a quarter in 2006. In all, 404 M&A deals last year were worth $31.18 billion.

“The fourth quarter has proved to be an active one for venture-backed liquidity, particularly in the form of IPOs, providing proof that promising enterprises are being nurtured in the venture capital market and finding considerable public market support in their successful exits,” said Steve Harmston, director of global research for VentureOne, in a statement. “While M&A activity may have slowed a bit in the fourth quarter, this still remains the most viable option for venture-backed exits in today’s market and the prices being paid for these start-ups throughout 2006 has been growing.”

The value of acquired companies increased to $52 million from $47.2 million in 2005.

Technology companies made up 273 of the M&A deals worth $19.33 billion. The acquisition total was 18 more than in 2006. The number of health care related deals fell to 74 from 83.