Paced by a quarterly record $2.88 billion in healthcare companies, venture funding climbed to nearly $7 billion in the opening three months of 2007, Dow Jones VentureOne and Ernst & Young reported on Monday.

The first quarter total of $6.96 billionwas some 8 percent higher than in 2006 and bodes well for the entire year, authors of the report said.

The number of deals in the quarter did dip, however, to 584, a drop of 31 from 2006.

However, VentureOne and E&Y reported a bigger share of money weith th seed- and first-round deals.

“Q1 was a strong quarter for venture investment across the board.,” said Joseph Muscat, Americas Director of the Ernst & Young Venture Capital Advisory Group. “A reasonably good exit climate for venture-backed companies, via both initial public offerings and mergers and acquisitions, has opened the door for more companies to secure venture capital financing.

“The record level of investment in healthcare, driven significantly by activity in the biopharmaceuticals sector and a strong exit environment for these companies, is a major driver of venture activity,” he added.

In North Carolina, the health company investment trend was reflected quite strongly with deals closed by InnerPulse ($50 million), Regado Bioscience ($23 million), Chmeriex ($23 million) and AlphaVax ($12.7 million).

However, of 11 deals in the Triangle, most were later stage.

The VentureOne and E&Y report also noted surges in alternative energy investments ($237 million in 10 deals, up from $53.8 million and six deals a year ago) and in environmental companies ($54.1 million in eight deals, up from $4 million in one investment.)

Healthcare investments surged 65 percent from $1.13 billion in the first quarter of 2006, with 167 deals being closed. That was up from 152 a year earlier.

“Driven perhaps by the therapeutic innovations around cancer, heart disease and other internal medicines intended for an aging baby-boomer population, the biopharmaceutical segment recorded its largest quarter to date with $1.79 billion invested, practically double the amount invested in the same quarter a year ago,” said Jessica Canning, director of global research at VentureOne. “Along with other significantly sized healthcare deals, there was also a great deal of interest in early-stage healthcare investing, representing about 38% of the deals that were funded in this category.”

Web 2.0 firms received $722.5 million in investments across 91 deals, an increase of 10 percent in funding and 16 in number of deals.

Median deal size increased to $8 million compared to $7 million in 2006.

Early stage deals made up 37 percent of the closings followed by later stage at 34 percent and second rounds at 24 percent.

Regionally Southern California generated $1.1 billion in deals, topping $1 billion in a quarter for the first time since 2000. Silicon Valley region remained the leader with $2.2 billion, up 10 percent, even though the number of investments declined by seven.