In this paper, we present a theory of strategic positioning that explains scientists’ strategic behavior in knowledge transfer from university to industry. The theory is based on the drivers strategic interdependence and organizational autonomy and entails three modes of behavior of scientists: mode1, mode2, and mode3 (the research entrepreneur). The results of an empirical study conducted at a research institute for nanotechnology show that, to increase the likelihood of scientists engaging in knowledge transfer to industry, scientists need to have a high need for autonomy (expressed in decision-making on collaboration with industry and join research projects) and a high need for interdependence (expressed in the need for resources such as knowledge, skills, facilities, etc.). Scientists’ academic and industry orientations do not change the effect of the strategic positioning theory on the likelihood of engagement with industry, nor the likelihood of knowledge transfer. The strategic positioning theory explains 43 % of the variance, i.e. there is a firm foundation for managerial practices for different scientist modes of strategic behavior.