Five Bemidji State University physics-engineering students have formed the nucleus of a high-tech company that recently opened an office in Bemidji.

EXB Solutions, Inc., a business specializing in software testing for aerospace and defense industries, hired Matt Higgins, Simon Goble, Ken Roy, Jordan Baker and Brandon Ritter, giving the young men opportunities they didn't expect to find in northern Minnesota.

The five started work at EXB 10 days ago.

"I thought I would have to move at least to Minneapolis or out of state," Higgins said. "It was nice to be able to find the opportunity here."

"I have to admit I looked other places," Goble said. "I was happy to be able to stay in Bemidji. Bemidji is a neat place. We like it a lot."

Goble and his wife, Linda, and son, Rilian, 6 months, have a home in Grant Valley Township. They were among EXP employees who greeted well wishers Wednesday morning at the company's open house in the Lakeside Center. The company plans to move to a building near the Bemidji Regional Airport in the future.

"I think we hired the whole class," said EXB CEO Don Hughes of the five hires, who just graduated this spring. "I think it's a win-win. That's why we picked the Bemidji area - Bemidji State. And, Northwest Tech has some people we might need, and we're not too far from North Dakota State."

Bemidji was also attractive to EXP Director of Engineering Paul Carpenter, who said he and his wife, Gloria, were glad to leave Arizona after 25 years.

"When we came up here, the people were so hospitable, my wife and I looked at each other and said, 'This is right,'" Carpenter said.

He said they weren't deterred by the 12 inches of snow that covered their car during an April site visit, and they are looking forward to selling their Phoenix home and finding a home in this area.

"From the outsider coming in, it was tremendous," said Hughes of the friendliness of the company's recruitment and welcome. "The idea that we were doing business was second hand."

Hughes said EXB will continue to operate satellite offices in Alabama, Arizona and the Twin Cities, but Bemidji will be the company's main site.

Another attraction in Bemidji, he said, is the high-speed communications made possible by the fiber optic system installed by Paul Bunyan Telephone.

"Technology-oriented people want to know what kind of infrastructure is in the community," said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Telephone operating officer.

Larry Young, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission, said the recruitment process went relatively quickly with EXB. The deal was sealed with loans of $100,000 each from the JEDC, Headwaters Regional Development Commission and Northwest Minnesota Foundation. The Neilson Foundation also contributed $50,000 for employee training, Young said.

Former BSU President Jim Bensen, speaking on behalf of the university, said Bemidji's edge in economic development is knowledge-based and digital enterprises.

He said the real estate model of attracting businesses and growing the economy through location, location, location no longer holds up.

"That's yesterday," Bensen said. "The new model - the knowledge model - is based on relationship, relationship, relationship."

Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann also welcomed EXP.

"We're a progressive community and will continue to polish the star that is northern Minnesota," he said.

EXB plans to hire six or seven employees for the first year of operation and double that number by the end of the second year, said Jeff Thielen, EXB vice president for operations

Throughout a five-year period, he said, he hopes to have 20-30 employees on board and an annual payroll between $1.5 and $2.2 million.

According to the EXB Web site, the company was founded in 2000 and has been qualified by the Minnesota Office of Technology to be a State of Minnesota project solution provider. EXB has also been designated as a State of Minnesota Certified Independent Testing Laboratory.