Like many nations, China is hotly pursuing innovation and the economic benefit of bringing ideas to the market. But China’s drive to embrace an innovation-based economy in favour of its reliance on manufacturing is daunting. Most big companies are state owned and traditionally averse to funding research. Despite a dramatic increase in basic research output over the past two decades, only a small percentage is converted to industrial application. Yet as Shenzhen, Beijing and Wuhan show, an industrial base built on cutting-edge science has matured quickly in some regions, often with local policy support. These cities host many of the Chinese corporations with the highest growth in research output published in the Nature Index’s 68 high-impact journals between 2012 and 2014 (see ‘Industry champions’). With a swag of intellectual property and revenue as proof, these regions are leading China in its quest for transformation.