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Evidence for Innovation: Equity, diversity, inclusion and impact analyses of innovation support programs for small and medium-size enterprises

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Program outline

Aims: This funding opportunity seeks to generate new evidence on the performance and the distributional impacts of innovation support programs for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), promote collaboration between researchers and innovation agencies, and strengthen networks and capacity for analysis and implementation of innovation policies.

Research focus: The funding opportunity supports research that generates evidence on the performance and distributional impacts of SME support programs or policies (e.g., on women-led enterprises, access to goods and services in underserved communities, youth employment). A wide range of policies and services, referred to here as innovation support programs, seek to create and develop SMEs. The performance of such programs has been examined but there is considerable scope to strengthen the evidence base in low-income countries, which is the geographic focus for this funding opportunity. 

This funding opportunity aims to support an integrative approach to understanding both the firm/economic performance of SME support programs as well as their social impacts by integrating equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) analyses. The rationale for this focus stems from an interest in promoting evidence-informed decision-making as well as understanding how economic policies can support social development goals (e.g., gender equality), and in the strengths and weaknesses of targeted EDI initiatives.

In recent years, government policy has become increasingly interested in inclusive innovation. One expression of this interest are innovation support programs for women entrepreneurs, women-led businesses and populations who have been historically under-represented or marginalized from the private sector. This funding opportunity seeks to enrich scholarship and generate comparative insights on the impact of innovation support programs, including targeted EDI programs, and their contribution to advancing economic and social public policy goals.  

Collaboration: This funding opportunity invites active involvement and leadership from both researchers and agency staff responsible for designing and/or implementing innovation support programs. Non-academic collaborators may involve representatives from government and non-profit or for-profit agencies. It is expected that this collaboration will facilitate access to data, improve empirical analysis, and position research evidence for application.

Staged funding: The funding opportunity accepts applications for one of two funding streams: a Stage 1 grant and a Direct-entry grant.

Stage 1 grants will fund survey research and network development over a 12-month period. This preparatory phase will position teams to submit detailed Stage 2 proposals, which would support in-depth analysis of identified innovation support programs.

Direct-entry grants are designed to support in-depth analysis of identified innovation support programs that can be mobilized quickly to advance the aims of this call. Applicants interested in this funding stream should only consider submitting a Direct-entry application if they have a clearly defined research focus and team, including a collaboration plan with an innovation agency, and have already done the same or similar type of survey research expected from Stage 1 projects.  

1. Context and aims


The SME sector is a critical economic driver, employer, and provider of goods and services. In addition, the sector can promote social inclusion of women and economically marginalized groups or stratification depending on market structure, labour market dynamics and incentives. An objective of many economic development strategies is a SME sector that develops, uses and/or adapts technological solutions, and engages in research and experimental development or other innovation-related activities to develop or improve products or processes.[i]  Acknowledging the importance of SMEs for both economic and social policy goals, national governments and international cooperation agencies have created policies and financed SME support programs to promote firm creation and growth and advance EDI policies.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight this dual focus and integration. For example, the gender equality and women’s empowerment goal, SDG 5, emphasizes the importance of women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership in the productive sector. This goal encourages policymakers to undertake reforms so that women have equal rights to economic resources and promote gender equality. The innovation goal, SDG 9, calls for inclusive innovation that empowers and promotes equity in access to financial services, including affordable credit, and for ensuring a conducive policy environment for domestic technology development, research and innovation.

Building the evidence to inform innovation policy has received increased attention in recent years from both government and researchers but the geographic distribution of that evidence is concentrated in high- and middle-income countries.  Countries have varying capacities to support research and policy. Cirera and Maloney (2017) have drawn attention to the “innovation paradox”: the poorer the country, the greater the need for effective innovation policy but it is exactly those countries that have the weakest capacity to analyze the business environment and to design, implement and evaluate policies and programs that support or seek to steer the SME sector. 

This paradox will persist without concerted action to generate the evidence and to strengthen the capacity to use evidence to inform the implementation of innovation policies.[ii]


This funding opportunity has both research and capacity-strengthening objectives. Successful applicants will be supported to advance the following aims:

  • consolidate existing data and research, and prioritize opportunities for research and policy-learning to inform innovation policy and support for SME development;
  • strengthen and generate empirically driven research that characterizes the SME ecosystem, identifies strategies to enhance SME development, and assesses the performance of innovation policies from an EDI perspective;
  • promote collaboration between academics interested in innovation policy and innovation agencies in and across countries;
  • strengthen the capacity of innovation agencies through access to better data, research evidence and peer-learning, leading them to design effective innovation support programs that take into consideration their EDI priorities.

In addition to financial support, IDRC will facilitate information sharing and organize peer-learning opportunities for teams selected for funding. This will include workshops and collaboration across funded teams to develop a platform to openly share emerging results, data and insights for innovation policy.

IDRC and the UN Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries are interested in strengthening the capacity of innovation agencies participating in this program. When Direct-entry and Stage 2 proposals are selected, we will invite innovation agencies involved in these projects to participate in a consultation to identify topics for peer-learning. Identified topics are expected to complement the funded research studies but may extend beyond this scope to address, for example, systematic data and evidence constraints/opportunities. While IDRC and the UN Technology Bank are not committing resources to this complementary initiative at this time, both agencies are signaling their interest in pursuing a dialogue with innovation agencies to identify shared interests and opportunities.  

2. Empirical focus and team collaboration

For the Stage 1 application, proposals must identify innovation support programs that the applicants intend to analyze. A Stage 1 grant will allow teams to undertake survey research to assess the feasibility and relevance of their proposed research agendas as well as consolidate their team and collaboration plans.

Applicants should only consider submitting a Direct-entry application if they have a defined empirical focus and can demonstrate the time-sensitive nature of their proposal.

Empirical focus

The funding opportunity supports research that generates evidence on the performance and distributional impacts of innovation support programs for the SME sector.

The following table provides an illustrative list of innovation support programs that would be suitable for empirical analysis. The table is divided into directed or passive programs. Directed support programs have inclusion criteria – requiring eligible SMEs/individuals to opt in or apply for a service or incentive. Passive support programs, on the other hand, tend to apply to the entire SME sector and do not require a SME or individual to opt in.

Illustrative Directed and Passive Innovation Support Programs for the SME sector



  • Management extension/business advisory programs
  • Technology extension services
  • Early-stage infrastructure and advisory programs (incubators/accelerators)
  • Entrepreneurship training and mentorship programs
  • Grant schemes supporting Research and Development (R&D) activities (prototype development, testing, commercialization activities)
  • Loan-guarantee programs (commercial and non-commercial loans)
  • Systemic policies for innovation (e.g., corporation and competition law, government procurement policy, R&D tax incentives, tax relief for start-ups, business incorporation and compliance regulations)
  • Standards and basic national quality infrastructure
  • Strengthen pre-commercial R&D capacity at public research organizations and incentive programs to collaborate with SMEs
  • Development of local supply chains and export programs

(adapted from Cirera and Maloney, 2017,

The presence of such programs will vary by country and the above list is not exhaustive.

Applicants may propose to investigate innovation support programs that are active, in the early stage of implementation, or no longer active.

For closed programs, applicants may propose new or re-enrollment studies. Re-enrollment studies could replicate firm questionnaires or case studies to understand the long-term benefits or sustainability of results. Data-collection challenges or opportunities would need to be discussed but, if feasible, closed programs are eligible. For active programs, applicants are to propose new or complement existing efforts to assess the equity, diversity, inclusion and impact of the program. It is expected that the responsible innovation agency implementing the program will contribute to the research objectives and support data collection. Programs in the early stages of development are also suitable candidates for investigation. 

Applicants are encouraged to include innovation support programs that have explicit EDI objectives. The presence of innovation support programs with explicit EDI objectives will vary by country. Programs for women, racial empowerment, urban or rural SME growth or early-career entrepreneurs are some programmatic examples that seek to advance EDI goals. If innovation support programs in the country do not have explicit EDI objectives, applicants must propose a plan for examining the distributional impact of a selected program(s) using a suitable EDI framework.  

Broad innovation surveys and experimental research may be proposed but applicants must outline how this work would complement their analysis of innovation support programs. Experimental research aimed at understanding levers to advance gender EDI in innovation support programs would be welcomed.

Stage 1 applications proposing survey research are to identify more than one innovation support program of interest (see section 3 for further information). A Stage 1 grant is designed for teams to assess the feasibility of identified programs for in-depth analysis, undertake literature reviews, and identify available data and program-related information. 

Direct-entry applications may identify more than one innovation support program, but this is not a requirement. A Direct-entry grant is designed for teams that have a clear empirical focus and identify a time-sensitive opportunity to commence research. In addition, applicants must demonstrate that they have a collaboration plan that will support access to program data and set the research agenda.

Research design and methodology

The analysis of innovation support programs is expected to generate evidence on both the firm/economic performance of SME support programs as well as their distributional impacts by integrating EDI analyses. The rationale for this integrative approach stems from an interest in promoting evidence-informed decision-making as well as understanding how economic policies can support social development goals, and in the strengths and weaknesses of targeted EDI initiatives.

Applicants submitting a Stage 1 proposal are to outline potential study designs (e.g., observational or experimental) and research methods the team may utilize to analyze the impact of selected innovation support programs. The choice of research design and methods will depend on the characteristics of the innovation support program and available program data or data-collection requirements. Applicants submitting a Direct-entry proposal must detail and justify the study design and methods based on the innovation support program to be examined.

Keeping in mind these considerations, research design and methods should be proposed with the following policy questions in mind:

For programs without explicit EDI aims

For programs with explicit EDI aims

Did the program achieve its goals? Applying an EDI lens, were the results shared equally and what might explain observed differences?

Analyzing the distributional impacts and reasons for those impacts, what are the implications for innovation and social policy?

Did the program achieve its EDI goals?

What were the relative strengths and shortcomings of the program compared to similar programs?

What are the implications for innovation and social policy?

Applicants are encouraged to highlight research questions identified by participating innovation agencies.

Applicants are to summarize their proposed (Stage 1) or clearly defined (Direct-entry) empirical focus and corresponding research design and methods in their applications. 

Team collaboration

This funding opportunity supports collaboration between researchers and innovation agencies to build the evidence base and promote peer-learning across organizational boundaries and countries.

Applicants are encouraged to propose demand-driven research projects for empirical analysis. Representatives from innovation agencies would be well placed to identify relevant case-studies and advise on data-availability/access considerations, policy objectives, and opportunities for informing policy and practice.

For purposes of the call, innovation agencies refer to agencies that are responsible for formulating, funding, implementing and evaluating innovation support programs for the SME sector. Typically, government agencies are responsible for innovation support programs, but this will vary by country and program. It may be the sole responsibility of a government agency or a shared responsibility between government and a non-government agency. In cases of shared responsibility, government agencies may collaborate with, or devolve responsibility to, a non-profit or for-profit agency to support policy implementation.

All applications are to identify a principal investigator who will have overall responsibility for the project. This individual will be based at a research organization (e.g., universities, think tanks) that can receive and manage the research grant. Applicants are to identify co-principal investigator(s) or co-investigators, who will be core members of the team. Teams may include collaborators who will provide specific advice and/or expertise but are not expected to help steer the overall project. Innovation agency personnel may be co-principal, co-applicant or collaborators.

Further to IDRC’s Equality Statement (see section 11), IDRC expects gender diversity among principal investigators and co-investigators.

Direct-entry applications must identify innovation agency personnel as core members of the team. As Stage 1 grants will help solidify the empirical research focus, the involvement of innovation agency personnel is encouraged but not required at the application stage.   

Country representation

Stage 1 applications are to propose survey research in two or more countries.

Direct-entry applications may propose to conduct research in more than one country but this is not mandatory. The national focus of most innovation support programs would be a determining factor. However, where appropriate and feasible, applicants are encouraged to identify and propose comparative research on related innovation support programs in different countries.


Activities that support graduate student training and professional development of innovation agencies involved are encouraged.

3. Funding, duration and expected outputs

There are two entry points for this funding opportunity: A Stage 1 application and a Direct-entry application.

Stage 1 grants will fund survey research and support team development over a 12-month period. At the end of this period, IDRC will invite Stage 1 grantees to submit a Stage 2 proposal, should they wish to pursue an in-depth analysis of identified innovation support programs.

Direct-entry grants are designed to support in-depth analysis of identified innovation support programs that can be mobilized quickly to advance the aims of this call. Applicants interested in this funding opportunity should only consider submitting a Direct-entry application if they have a clearly defined research focus and meet the team collaboration requirements above.

Stage 1 proposals selected for funding will be awarded up to CA$100,000 over a 12-month period.

During this period, teams are expected to undertake survey research resulting in a publication. Covering the countries involved in their network, the survey research publication is to include: a) an historical overview of the innovation policy environment and a description of innovation support programs and their defining EDI characteristics ; b) a country-specific literature and data review that identifies studies and data sources relevant to the analysis and characterization of innovation support programs and the broader environment; and, c) an analysis of research and capacity-strengthening opportunities (or gaps) with the potential to strengthen research and practice. 

This survey research is to assist teams develop their research program, including the innovation support programs to be examined, and formalize a collaboration plan among team members (researchers and innovation agency personnel) to facilitate access to program information and contribute to knowledge translation objectives.

Applicants may also direct funding to collect new data or analyze existing data to present preliminary results or support potential research directions. 

IDRC will invite successful Stage 1 applicants to attend webinars on selected topics during this 12-month period. Topics covered will help teams with their proposal-development efforts. 

At the end of the 12-month period, expected outputs are:

1. A publishable survey research report that: characterizes the SME ecosystem and situates innovation support programs within this broader landscape; consolidates existing data and research relevant to understanding the ecosystem and the performance and distributional impacts of innovation support programs; and, prioritizes innovation support programs for in-depth analysis and policy learning to inform innovation policy and support for SME development.

2. A Stage 2 proposal and committed team to undertake the proposed work.

IDRC will communicate the details of the Stage 2 application process only to teams receiving a Stage 1 grant. For planning purposes, a Stage 2 grant is equivalent to the terms outlined here for a Direct-entry grant.

Direct-entry applications selected for funding will be awarded up to CA$500,000 over a 36-month period. During this period, teams are to implement their research plan. Expected outputs and outcomes are:

1. High quality research outputs that assess the performance of innovation support programs against their stated goals from an EDI perspective.

2. Strengthened ties between researchers and innovation agencies in and across countries.

3. Access to data and research evidence enabling innovation agencies to make informed decisions on the design of innovation support programs and how to advance their EDI priorities.

IDRC’s financial support is subject to sufficient funds being made available to IDRC by the Parliament of Canada. Moreover, IDRC reserves the right to cancel the process at any time without prior notice and/or at its discretion to grant all or none of the awards under this process.

4. Submission process

  • Applications must be submitted by no later than July 28, 2021 – 17:00 Eastern Standard Time.
  • Applications can be submitted in either English or French through Survey Monkey Apply.
  • Proposals will not be accepted by email.

Applications received before the deadline and deemed eligible by IDRC will be evaluated in accordance with the process outlined herein.

5. Eligibility criteria

  1. Complete application: All requested information in the application form must be complete and submitted by the application deadline.
  2. Principal investigators: All applications must identify a principal investigator. These individuals must be based at a university (or equivalent) with a government-legislated mandate to pursue research, or a non-profit research organization (e.g., think tank). Universities may be public or private. These individuals must have an advanced research degree and demonstrate through publications and work experience that they can coordinate the network.
  3. Lead administrative organization: This is the principal investigator’s employer. The lead administrative organization must agree to and be able to manage the grant on behalf of the network in accordance with the terms of IDRC’s grant agreement. 
  4. Innovation agency representative(s): Direct-entry applications must include team members from innovation agencies and outline their commitments to supporting the project. Innovation agency representatives will have responsibilities for innovation policy and/or for implementing SME support programs. As responsibility for policy and policy implementation vary across countries, innovation agency representatives can be from government, for-profit and/or non-profit organizations. Participating innovation agencies agree to facilitate access to relevant data and information to facilitate research. Stage 1 applications may include innovation agency personnel or include a plan for involving agency staff. 
  5. Eligible countries: This funding opportunity supports applications led from and focused on the following countries: Afghanistan; Angola; Benin; Burkina Faso; Burundi; Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; Central African Republic; Chad; Democratic Republic of the Congo;  Djibouti;  Eritrea;  Ethiopia;  The Gambia;  Ghana;  Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Haiti; Lao People’s Democratic Republic;  Liberia; Lesotho; Madagascar;  Malawi;  Mali; Mauritania; Mozambique; Myanmar; Nepal; Niger; Rwanda; Senegal; Sierra Leone;  Somalia; South Sudan; Sudan; Togo; Timor-Leste; Uganda; Tanzania; Yemen;  Zambia and Zimbabwe. For purposes of this call, the lead administrative organization must be based in the countries above. Applicants from the island states of Tuvalu, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Comoros, and São Tomé and Príncipe may participate but as members of a consortium.
  6. Collaborators outside the eligible country list: Researchers and innovation agency representatives not based in the eligible country list can be members of a team. Personnel costs associated with their participation must be met from their own resources. Other costs facilitating their collaboration must be identified and justified in the budget and proposal.
  7. Country leadership: Stage 1 applications must have country leadership from two or more eligible countries. Within each country, Stage 1 applications must propose either a principal or a co-principal applicant. Direct-entry applications may include more than one country.
  8. Thematic focus: Stage 1 and Direct-entry applications must identify innovation support programs that will be the basis of their research program (see thematic focus section).
  9. EDI considerations for team composition, training plan and research design: Applicants are required to apply EDI criteria to the selection of team members. A proposal will be deemed eligible if it includes: a) a statement indicating how their team composition and recruitment objectives for graduate students and training (where applicable) advance gender EDI considerations; and b) a statement outlining how EDI considerations will inform their research strategy. These statements will be assessed for their completeness as part of their eligibility review process.
  10. Eligible costs: Budgets that include ineligible expenses or do not break down costs will be ineligible. In addition to budget guidance provided, IDRC will not provide honoraria or salary support for innovation agency personnel. Their agencies should see the value of the proposal in advancing their work and, as such, agree to their staff involvement in the network. However, any direct costs for training or research are eligible expenses. In addition, innovation agencies may host graduate students or visiting researchers on a temporary basis to facilitate data collection and analysis.

Proposals that meet these criteria will be considered eligible.

6. Selection process

Following the eligibility review, applications will be reviewed by an external merit review committee organized by IDRC. This committee will evaluate applications based on the evaluation criteria and make a funding recommendation to IDRC.

On review of individual applications recommended for funding and in consultation with the external merit review committee, IDRC may propose changes to the budget and research scope.

If the number of eligible applications exceeds the time commitment expected of the voluntary merit review committee, IDRC staff will review eligible applications to identify high-potential proposals. If this step occurs, only high-potential applications would be reviewed by the merit review committee. This process would be guided by input from the chair of the merit review committee.

A ‘high-potential’ application would have the following characteristics: clear responses to all requested information; clearly identified empirical research opportunities; relevance of the research plan and stated interest of participating innovation agency personnel (particularly for Direct-entry proposals); and potential for novel research findings.       

7.  Timelines and communication




May 11, 2021

Application information posted

June 3, 2021

Applications Due

July 28, 2021

Funding decision communicated to applicants

October 5, 2021

All applicants will be contacted to inform them of the funding decision by October 5, 2021. 

For applications selected for funding, IDRC will provide comments to the applicants. Applications not selected for funding will not receive feedback.   

8. Application format and requirements

All applicants are required to complete an online application, which includes an eligibility and a proposal section.

The process is the same for both Stage 1 and Direct-entry proposals.

Applicants will be asked for the following:

  • information on applicants
  • a plain-language abstract
  • a research proposal containing:
    • the research problem and justification
    • country scope and collaboration with innovation agencies
    • methodology: research design, data collection, analysis and EDI framework
    • workplan and risks
    • team composition and EDI consideration
    • results and dissemination (including knowledge mobilization and a commitment to open access and open data)
  • budget. Consult:
  • CVs of team members
  • data-management plan for Direct-entry proposals. Consult:

9. Evaluation criteria

Proposals will be evaluated using the following criteria:

Relevance (30%)

  • Does the proposal advance the aims of the Evidence for Innovation program?
  • Is the thematic focus well-grounded in current practice and policy debates and does it address an evidence gap?
  • Is the research plan and team composition positioned to inform innovation and social policy and/or practice?

Quality of the research plan (50%)

  • Does the application outline a sound research plan appropriate for either a Stage 1 or Direct-entry proposal?
  • Does the research design and methodology indicate (Stage 1) or demonstrate (Direct-entry) how the identified innovation support programs will be analyzed from an EDI perspective? 
  • Does the budget support the research plan and prioritize meaningful activities?
  • Is the proposed approach feasible given the chosen thematic and context?

Team composition (20%)

  • Does the team have the combined expertise and support to succeed?
  • What is the plan (Stage 1) or partnership agreement (Direct-entry) for meaningful collaboration between researchers and representatives from innovation agencies?
  • How have EDI considerations informed the composition of the team?

10. Ethical research and compliance with IDRC and country approval requirements

IDRC requires that research involving human subjects be carried out in accordance with the highest ethical standards possible. Where available, applicants will need to obtain approval from an official institutional or national research ethics body. This process needs to be specified in the proposal. Where a research ethics body is not available, applicants are to propose a mechanism for setting up an ethics review committee for the planned research activities and conform with IDRC ethics and security protocols.

IDRC has scientific and technical cooperation agreements with numerous governments. Where such agreements exist, IDRC will inform applicants (if their proposal is recommended for funding) what additional steps may be required to comply with such agreements.

11. Information for applicants

Applicants are to consult IDRC’s guidance provided here:

Sections on this website that need to be consulted are:

  • ‘Proposed budget and timeline’ (for preparing your budget)
  • ‘Your base document: the grant agreement’ (all lead administrative organizations must agree to the terms and conditions)
  • Data-management plan, in ‘how do I apply for a research grant’ (for Direct-entry applicants)

IDRC strives for equality in all aspects of its work. We support the generation of knowledge — including by individuals from diverse genders, communities, histories, legal status, and experiences — that tackles the systems that perpetuate inequalities on the basis of identity. The requirement for EDI analysis and composition of the team members seeks to advance  IDRC’s Equality Statement.

Applicants must be committed to publishing research findings in the public domain in accordance with IDRC’s Open Access Policy.

Contact: Given the interest generated by IDRC funding opportunities, questions may not be answered right away. Emails to will be answered within five business days.

A FAQ page will be published, if further clarification is requested.

12. Permission for use and disclosure of information

The application form will ask applicants for their consent for IDRC to receive and store submitted applications for purposes of external review and for program evaluation. 

If selected for funding, the applicants further consent to the disclosure of proposal information such as the project abstract, team members and the name of their organizations.

As a Canadian Crown corporation, IDRC is subject to Canada’s Access to Information Act. Consequently, any submissions in response to this call for research proposals will be held by IDRC in a manner consistent with the Access to Information Act, including IDRC's obligations to disclose documents requested by members of the public.

13. Partners

IDRC is a Crown corporation created in 1970 by the Parliament of Canada. IDRC builds the capacity of people and institutions in developing countries to undertake the research that they identify as most urgent. It works with researchers as they confront contemporary challenges within their own countries and contribute to global advances in their fields.

The United Nations Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries is a global organization dedicated to enhancing the contribution of science, technology and innovation for sustainable development in the world’s 46 least developed countries. The UN Technology Bank helps countries build the science, technology and innovation capacity that they need to promote the structural transformation of their economies, eradicate poverty and foster sustainable development.


[ii] Cirera, Xavier; Maloney, William F.. 2017. The Innovation Paradox : Developing-Country Capabilities and the Unrealized Promise of Technological Catch-Up. Washington, DC: World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO. Available at: